The Niagara Falls By Election is escalating to a fevered pitch in advance of its February 13th end date. This particular by election being especially important as it is, a referendum on the minority Liberals and their unelected leader, the home territory of Tory leader Tim Hudak, and a potential growth area for the NDP outside of their Welland stronghold. It has been rare of late to see two parties – let alone three – all commit to serious campaign organizing in the region.
So far this campaign has seen three debates. All of these debates have been well attended and heated. Folks in the area are aware that they are being engaged and that this particular by election is important – after decades of feeling politically unimportant. Questions have been pointed and the public has not spared their praise of condemnation at debates. This is an economically depressed region with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, a decimated manufacturing sector, and very few ways out.
In this atmosphere – and running off of decades of Union organizing experience – CAW Niagara President and Niagara Falls City Councillor Wayne Gates has been hammering on a “jobs” mantra platform. He will defend “jobs,” he will fight for “jobs,” he will do anything for “jobs.” The jobs platform is resonating with some, but as the campaign continues it appears that this “jobs” vision will come at the expense of many of the problems facing workers in the region.
Marineland – After being critical of attempts by Marineland Canada to silence demonstrations by way of City Council leases – Gates has used debates to distance himself from being critical of the park and instead is celebrating the “jobs” the captive animal facility brings to the region. The first and most troubling point is that in the last two years 16 ex-employees have broken non-disclosure agreements and detailed testimony about what they feel are issues at the park. This includes people who have lost their jobs as a result of refusing to sign further non-disclosures stating that no abuse has occurred at the park. The park is not unionized and this kind of testimony is usually respected and defended by the established left (NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo is well outside the riding and is seemingly the only one associated with the party willing to take a stand on the issue.) Instead, these workers have been left to twist in the wind. The “jobs” being defended – are largely seasonal, part time and minimum wage jobs that a part of a larger tourist “jobs” industry which keeps this region depressed. Captive animal facilities faced similar criticism in the mid 90’s during a “Free Willy” phase. In response Canada’s Wonderland removed their marine mammal exhibits and the Vancouver Aquarium signed on to a commitment not to use the practice of wild capture to obtain animals. The idea that animal captivity = jobs is false and the lack of foresight Gates shows in supporting this embattled park positions him as fighting for the status quo – precarious jobs for an employer known to sue employees who publicly speak out.
No to the $14 Minimum Wage – It was unsurprising to me that Gates would be unwilling to distance himself from the pack and continue to be critical of Marineland while running on the platform he currently is. That said, Gates dismissal of the Ontario Federation of Labour $14 Minimum Wage campaign was a surprise. This campaign is important for regions that are currently mired in economic depression because of wide spread precarity and service sector jobs. In an area with a vanishing manufacturing industry the goal has to be to move those service jobs towards a living wage – a wage capable of sustaining and keeping people in the region while also increasing purchasing power. Some have tried to deflect this off to the party policy or leader – but Gates has campaigned throughout on the promise that a new hospital will come to Niagara Falls, a stance that clearly contradicts his party’s vision. Gates has tried to counter this with closed tendering proposals for local construction contracts. Detractors have claimed this would prioritize organized labour – but the larger issue is that the region does not have the ability to raise the taxes needed to allow for a closed tendering system. Gates proposal shifts funding responsibility back onto tax payers, which without a similar responsibility on the local tourist/service industry to raise their wages seems extremely short sighted. Everyone in the region is tired of out of province construction companies getting large construction contracts on open tender bidding – but a move to a closed tender bid system without a raise in minimum wage is not a solution. Similar attempts to tie tax credits to jobs make no distinction between what the job is. Niagara has no shortage of precarious job creation – encouraging or supporting more of that will not be a way out.
The “Local” Wine Industry Fetish – It is long accepted political dogma in the Niagara Region to never be critical of the “local” wine industry and to take every opportunity to be a spokesperson for it. All candidates have repeated this line at every debate – including Gates. This position, like Marineland, is less surprising as the “temporary foreign workers” (migrant workers) that dominant the industry are frequently invisibilized by the established left. That the “local” wine industry has shifted large swaths of farmland used to grow food to this niche industry, or that widespread issues and structural racism exists in the temporary foreign worker program (migrant workers have EI deducted but cannot ever access it, migrant workers can legally be paid less than Canadian citizens, deportations can occur without cause or recourse, etc) are never addressed. The income disparity between the few individuals (i.e. families) who dominate this industry, and the workers who actually produce the product, is vast and lends to further opportunities to exploit. A $14 minimum wage for all, combined with the option of citizenship for migrant workers, would offer a small chance to close this gap and to keep more purchasing power in the region. Both the Liberals and NDP have been critical of Tory proposals of right to work and the “race to the bottom” and both have eloquently made the case on how this effects the labour market broadly, however, neither have addressed systemic issues in the temporary foreign worker program and how a lack of access to labour rights or fair wages already exists in this region for many workers.
Caveat: If you’ve read this far it’s important to note that this is not an attack to move people to vote for Bart Maeves (Conservative) or Joyce Morocco (Liberal). I don’t engage with their policy on this level because I think their ideas are even more disastrous for working class people in the region and beyond. I also caution that I do not subscribe to the idea that people should save political criticism for after an election. Many on the left in Niagara have made the case for a $14 minimum wage and most heard or have heard of Gates public dismissal. Simply remaining silent and allowing the political discourse to shift away from the issue is not a solution – regardless of whether or not Gates gets elected. If Gates is to run on a “jobs” platform that clearly ignores the situation of some of the most precarious workers in the region then those on the left should be there to remind him. Personally, I also believe that it is the way issues are talked about and framed which are most important – even more important than voting the our current political model.
In the end though, this by election will most likely be a bellwether for a full spring election. If either minority party gains this region they will be emboldened to push further – and with the Liberals polling well behind in third (small sample albeit) that looks like it will happen. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati first said he would not endorse a candidate, and since that poll has since switched to publicly endorse the Liberal candidate Joyce Morocco. He claimed that he wants the riding to be in sync with the governing party – which as much as I despise Jim Diodati – makes good political sense for a Mayor in the area. Diodati also represents the fear that if this by election only serves to trigger another full election – what will have been the point of all three of these parties frantically campaigning only to campaign again? If that does happen, residents of the area will most likely disengage. All of this points to why getting policy right and calling for accountability at this moment is important – regardless of whom you vote for or if you vote at all.
The stage is currently set where the media coverage exists inside and out the region and the people inside the region are engaged. We need to use that to ensure that the issues specific to this area do not get lost in manufactured “jobs champion” rhetoric. We need to make Wayne Gates see the workers for the jobs.