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- by David McLaren

Over the past 40 years CEO compensation has increased by roughly 85%. Over the same 40 years, Ontario workers' productivity has increased 40%, but average incomes have not even kept pace with inflation. In Ontario, the minimum wage has effectively increased by $1. One dollar in 40 years. Time for a raise, I think.

The United Way of Bruce Grey has reported on the need for more money in more people's pockets. Food bank use  increased by 92% between 2013-15. Francesca Dobbyn has just pegged the living wage – what people need to live reasonably well in Bruce-Grey without eating bad food or living in decrepit housing – at $22.01.

Ontario's proposed workplace reforms are welcome and long overdue even if the new $15 an hour minimum wage is seven dollars short of what it takes to live here. They will also increase the benefits available to low wage workers and hopefully employers will see the wisdom of taking people on full time rather than parceling out part time work.

But it's going to take a small army to monitor and enforce the new rules. The Liberals say it'll take another 175 inspectors. I think that's a bit low when you consider that 78% of businesses inspected in an enforcement blitz last year were in breach of the current, much more lenient rules. The government collected over $300,000 from companies that owed money to their employees, but millions of dollars of workers' wages remain in employers' pockets.

There's a better way than creating more bureaucracy – let workers organize their own workplace. Unions have worked for years to distribute wealth more equitably. Union membership (and collective agreements) were highest during the so-called Golden Age of Capitalism in the 1950s and 60s. Employees sat down with their employers and worked out a deal that benefitted both. Yes, there were strikes; after all, withholding their labour is the only thing workers have to level the playing field. But most were settled with talk and compromise.

All that ebbed away as governments began to pass legislation that tied the hands of unions. In Ontario, the Harris government added another step in the process of certification which gave employers plenty of opportunity to harass and threaten workers, and some did just that. The Conservatives also allowed companies to hire 'replacement workers' to help them get through a strike. Some corporations locked out their employees and then hired replacement workers in attempts to break the union.

Sixteen years after we booted out the Conservatives, the Liberals have yet to get those anti-union laws off their books. And Ontario's reforms will leave them there.

The biggest contributors to low wages and our rising rates of income inequality are fast food franchises and multi-location big box stores.

Ironically the Workplace Review that came before the Liberals' legislation included a path for workers to organize franchises. That didn't make it into Ms Wynne's reforms.

To me, this sounds like a government that thinks it knows what's best for everybody and can do the job that unions used to do.

OK, set a decent minimum wage and some ground rules for benefits and time off – as the Workplace Reforms do, but let the workers and the bosses work out a better deal if they can. I'd rather have some say over the conditions of my own employment than have a party prepping for an election do it for me.

So, Ms Wynne, why not take the legislative shackles off unions? Let them compete to represent workers in all industries. Pass legislation to oblige the real owners of the franchises, at head office, to sit down and bargain with their workers. Then get out of the way.

You'll save the money you'll spend trying to enforce a bunch of new rules. You'll get unions back in the game so they can help us deal with poverty wages, which are costing us a bundle in health care, affordable housing and welfare. And you'll give a measure of control back to people who must, by now, be thinking they have none.

David McLaren wrote the ‘Report on Precarious Work’ for Peace and Justice Grey Bruce in 2015.


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