Toronto·Analysis

Doug Ford's minimum wage move signals it's election time in Ontario

Since Premier Doug Ford took office, the minimum wage in Ontario had annual increases of 0 per cent, 0 per cent, 1.8 per cent and 0.7 per cent.

Business group calls hike to $15/hr 'unexpected,' but it's central to PCs' re-election strategy

Premier Doug Ford, right, shakes hands with Unifor members before announcing a plan to increase Ontario's minimum wage to $15 an hour at a news conference in Milton, Ont., on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Here's what's happened to the minimum wage in Ontario since Premier Doug Ford took office: 

  • 2018: 0 per cent increase.
  • 2019: 0 per cent increase.
  • 2020: 1.8 per cent increase (up 25 cents to $14.25/hr). 
  • 2021: 0.7 per cent increase (up 10 cents, to $14.35/hr).

That record is just one reason why many in this province were both surprised by and skeptical of Ford's campaign-style announcement Tuesday that his government will boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour effective Jan. 1, 2022. 

The date is precisely three years after Ontario's minimum wage was due to hit $15/hour under legislation brought in by Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government. Back in 2018, Ford slammed that bill as "job killing," his government repealed it and also froze the minimum wage for two years

Given all that, it's only natural that Ford was grilled by reporters at Tuesday's news conference on why a minimum wage hike that he considered such a job killer then is great now. 

"Things were a lot different back in 2018," Ford told the news conference. "We didn't have the pandemic, a worldwide pandemic." 

Ontario is scrapping the separate, lower minimum wage for restaurant and bar staff who serve liquor. With the Ford government's announcement on Tuesday, their minimum wage will increase $2.40 an hour on Jan. 1. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

How different were things in 2018? Not only did Ford's government freeze the minimum wage, it also took away a guarantee of two paid sick days annually for all employees, scrapped an equal-pay-for-equal-work law and eliminated rules making it easier for workers in some sectors to join unions.

None of this was reflected in Ford's tone or words at Tuesday's news conference. "This government will always remain on the side of the workers," he said. 

I wrote two weeks ago about how Ford and the Progressive Conservatives are attempting a political makeover ahead of the election next June 2 by portraying themselves as pro-worker. Tuesday's announcement further proves that this is a key piece of the PCs' strategy for winning re-election.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) didn't see the minimum wage hike coming, calling it 'unexpected' in a news release. 

"The Ontario government's surprise decision to increase the minimum wage without consultation comes at the worst possible time for small businesses," said a statement from CFIB president Dan Kelly. 

Premier Doug Ford, left, shakes hands with Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, as Unifor national president Jerry Dias, right, looks on. They were at a news conference announcing Ontario's plans to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (CityNews/Pool)

The small business lobby group said it is particularly concerned that Ontario is scrapping the separate, lower minimum wage for restaurant and bar staff who serve liquor. That will give them an increase of $2.40 an hour on Jan. 1. 

Ford made the minimum wage announcement flanked by two of the most influential union leaders in Ontario: Unifor's national president Jerry Dias, and the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Smokey Thomas.   

Persuading both Dias and Thomas to attend the news conference and to thank the government for the 65-cent minimum wage hike can only be seen as a big political win for the PCs. 

"When this government first got elected, we had our bumps and I said some not-so-nice things about the premier on many occasions," Thomas said Tuesday. He said things changed in the pandemic when Ford called him and the pair agreed to "put partisanship aside" and work together.

"Do working people have everything we want? No," Thomas continued. "But for the first time in dealing with three governments, we actually have a government that is listening and actually doing some very positive things for working people." 

Unifor national president Jerry Dias, right, joined Premier Doug Ford for Tuesday's announcement and called the minimum wage hike increase 'a good start.' (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Dias welcomed the increase, which will mean a New Year's Day raise for the 760,000 workers in Ontario who earn minimum wage. There's also a knock-on effect for tens of thousands more, including unionized supermarket workers with contracts that set their pay rates as "minimum wage plus."

"I think it's a good start ... but there's a lot of other work that still has to be done," Dias said, citing the Ford government's legislation capping public-sector wage increases at one per cent, and the lack of guaranteed paid sick days. 

The opposition parties are hoping voters won't buy that Ford and the PCs have the best interests of workers at heart. 

"The announcement today doesn't make up for the damage that Doug Ford has done to working people," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Tuesday at Queen's Park. 

"I am so sick and tired of watching Liberals and Conservatives use minimum wage workers as political pawns on the eve of an election where they're concerned about losing power," said Horwath. "It is disgusting. It is cruel and it continues to happen. It is a shameful tactic." 

The government's announcement of an increase to the minimum wage 'doesn't make up for the damage that Doug Ford has done to working people,' NDP Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters Tuesday at Queen's Park. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The NDP says the typical minimum wage worker is out $5,300 in the three years since the government cancelled the planned increase to $15 an hour. The Liberals put the figure at $6,700. 

"It's like Doug Ford set a fire. He ran over and put it out, and he wants us to pin a medal on his chest," said Liberal House Leader John Fraser. 

Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said Ford "was sticking it to workers" when the PCs first took power in 2018 and getting standing ovations from his caucus for it.

"I think people see through today's announcement and the effort to the Ford government to rebrand themselves," Schreiner said.   

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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