A volunteer-led workers’ rights group is knocking on Nova Scotians’ doors and asking them to sign a petition asking for a $20 minimum wage, 10 paid sick days, and better labour standards for workers.
Suzanne MacNeil is a volunteer with Justice for Workers — Nova Scotia, which was formerly known as Fight for $15 and Fairness. MacNeil and other volunteers are going door to door promoting a campaign to support worker rights.
“Our big central demand is around the wage issue,” MacNeil said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner. “And, of course, sick days are also a big deal. We very much are all about reforms and changes that encourage organizing that makes sure workers are well supported in this province. And also, that workers feel the confidence to agitate and organize around these issues.”
MacNeil said the group wants the rules around forming a union to be easier for workers. For example, when workers sign cards to join a union, a part of the process is voting.
“We believe this is often an unnecessary step,” MacNeil said. “Signing a card to join a union that should be recognized, and it is in a number of jurisdictions across North America. That’s an example of the kind of thing we’re for.”
$15 wasn’t enough
MacNeil said the change to Justice for Workers — Nova Scotia from Fight for $15 came about a year ago, although she said it was a while in the making.
“We had been getting feedback before folks, even before this current inflationary period, that $15 wasn’t going to be enough,” MacNeil said.
The group had a series of meetings and at the end of 2021 finalized the decision to up the demand to a $20 minimum wage. They also revisited the sick day demands, upping that to 10 paid sick days.
The work on the petition started in the spring, after the group decided on its specific demands. MacNeil said over the last several months they’ve been promoting it in public and knocking on doors, “just to see how people are responding to it.”
“The response has been really interesting,” MacNeil said. “We just went out for an hour, myself and one other member, on Saturday, just for an hour. In a lot of cases, we knock on a door and if I got an answer at the door, I would start my 30-second spiel, and in many cases the person was already decided before I even finished. It’s got a lot of positive reception.”
MacNeil said they didn’t get many negative responses on that day of door knocking. She did say during past campaigns they’d get questions about concerns that higher wages would drive up inflation and prices.
“As we see with the current affordability crisis, people’s higher wages are not driving this,” MacNeil said. “We’ve seen with recent events in the economy that myth is finally getting debunked. Folks are more confident in demanding higher wages and want to see higher wages on that front.”
$20 ‘in the same ballpark of reality’ with living wage
MacNeil said they’re demanding a $20 minimum wage rather than the current living wage rate because it better reflects an appropriate minimum wage for all communities across the province. According to the most recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the living wage in Halifax is $23.50/hr while it’s lower in other communities: Cape Breton ($20/hr); Annapolis Valley ($22.40/hr); northern Nova Scotia ($20.40), and southern Nova Scotia ($22.55/hr).
“We want the minimum wage demand in the same ballpark of reality of the living wage. But we also think while wages are the central demand, it’s not the only thing that will affect affordability,” MacNeil said. “Part of the reason we have such a high living wage in Halifax is because the rent is way too high. We believe not only should we have higher wages but there needs to be other interventions by government and others to bring down the rental rate, make it something more reasonable.”
MacNeil said a lot of small businesses generally try to do the right thing by their employees, but she said it’s still the workers who are expected to bear the brunt of the costs of everything.
“Workers have to put food on the table, we have to pay our rent. We have to make sure children have what they need when they’re going to school,” MacNeil said. “It’s not really fair to keep asking workers to keep compromising themselves for the sake of someone being able to run their business.
MacNeil noted that many businesses that offer lower wages tend to have trouble recruiting and retaining staff.
“Those businesses that try to do the right thing by providing decent wages and benefits, they tend not to experience as many problems,” MacNeil said.
‘We want people to be actively involved in the campaign’
MacNeil said after two years of the pandemic, they decided to take the campaign door to door using paper petitions because a lot of people may have felt really isolated.
“A lot of people may not realize that an issue they care about or an issue they’re experiencing in their lives, how many more people feel the same way they do,” MacNeil said. “One of the reasons we go with a paper petition as opposed to something online with Change.org where we could get thousands of signatures quickly, is we want to develop relationships with people. We want people to be actively involved in the campaign and take ownership of the issue.”
MacNeil said the campaign will kick into high gear in the new year. She said they’ll be reaching out to different communities across the province to see where Nova Scotians may want to anchor some local organizing.
“Now that we’ve had a bit of a chance to test the petition out with some door knocking and some public action in Halifax, I think it’s a good time to start thinking to that next part of our campaign,” MacNeil said.