After cancelling a planned $15 minimum wage when he was elected in 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford apparently had a change of heart last week. Abandoning his own policy of indexing the province’s minimum wage to inflation, Ford announced on November 2 that minimum wage workers would see $15 in the new year — that is, three years after he was elected.

With the current provincial minimum wage at $14.35, Ford’s raise amounts to only 65 cents, and still leaves Ontario behind British Columbia, where the minimum wage rose to $15.20 in June. Moreover, $15 now is not what it was in 2019. Workers’ rights advocates have understandably moved on to demanding $20 per hour.

Along with the increase in the general minimum wage, Ford’s government indicated that restaurant and liquor servers, whose current sub-minimum wage is $12.55 per hour, would now receive $15 per hour, too. This is an important reform. Lower, so-called “tipped minimum wage” rates disproportionately impact women and are associated with workers being sexually harassed and experiencing other related health and safety issues on the job.

However, as many commentators were quick to point out, Ford has hardly been the friend of workers throughout his tenure in power, particularly at the height of the pandemic when he refused to legislate permanent paid sick days. It’s also worth remembering that in 2018, the Ontario Conservatives’ first order of business was rolling back workers’ rights.

Upon entering office, the Ford Conservatives took immediate aim at the outgoing Liberals’ previous package of labour reforms. In 2017, the Liberals had introduced the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (Bill 148), which included a number of important employment standards improvements, such as introducing two paid sick days, mandating pay equity for those in part-time and casual employment, cracking down on temporary help agencies and addressing employee misclassification. On the labour relations side, the law also made it easier for some workers to join unions.

Bill 148’s centrepiece, however, was the $14 minimum wage. The Liberals promised $15 in January 2019, i.e., after the 2018 summer election, which they summarily lost.

By the fall of 2018, the new Conservative government had almost entirely scrapped Bill 148 and replaced it with the “Making Ontario Open for Business Act.” Paid sick days were gone and so was pay equity for those in nonstandard employment. Employers could continue to misclassify workers as “independent contractors” and deny them access to basic employment rights, including the technology companies who are presently lobbying hard to ensure they don’t lose this advantage.

Then Economic Development Minister, Jim Wilson, referred to the previous Liberal government’s minor labour protections as “burdensome regulations” that were apparently holding back investment and job growth. Do you remember the major uptick in growth and investment after Bill 148 was repealed? No? Me either.

That’s because gutting relatively tepid labour reforms was never about improving investment or economic health. Low-wage employers, particularly their more organized contingent in the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Council of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, had lobbied for the repeal of these new worker protections and Ford’s government delivered.

So, what accounts for Ford’s new found openness to the plight of workers?

Obviously, Ford and the Conservatives are in election mode and courting workers’ votes. The minimum wage announcement comes on the heels of several other “pro-worker” reform announcements. Many of these, such as instituting new rules for temporary help agencies, are — like the minimum wage increase — simply giving back what was taken away in 2018.

Other items, including the supposed “right to disconnect” protecting workers from being contacted by employers after work hours, are new. This “right to disconnect,” as currently written, is entirely useless because it actually requires nothing more than for employers to have a policy about after hours work. But we live in a time when Conservative “pro-worker” proposals — even when they’re clearly nonsensical — generate media fanfare.

Although Ford’s populist pivot ahead of next summer’s election surprised and angered the business lobby, it shouldn’t surprise the left. Ford has always been far less of an ideological right-winger than many other Canadian Conservatives. As columnist Martin Regg Cohn put it in the Toronto Star: “The premier is not so much a Progressive Conservative — it’s not on his business card — as he is the self-styled leader of Ford Nation, imagining himself the incarnation of workers and entrepreneurs alike.”

In 2018, Ford ran on putting the screws to workers to make Ontario “open for business.” This time around, the premier’s pitch is that, “Workers deserve to have more money in their pockets, because they earned it.” Such is the rhetorical and policy flexibility of the right-wing populist.

Ford’s style of political maneuvering inevitably produces cries of gimmickry. Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP clearly had to play defence after Ford’s minimum wage announcement. This is to be expected, and as far as it goes, it’s fine. But since the left has been unable to win electoral power and deliver gains for the working class, it had better figure out something more substantive than crying foul from the sidelines as Ford eats our lunch.

Yet it’s worse still to be taken in by Ford’s “pro-worker” pivot, as some union leaders apparently have.

Organized labour stands to gain nothing by “flanking” Ford, let alone providing him with a union hall in which to hold his press conference about raising a minimum wage that he froze three years ago. Fellow Passage contributor, Robert Hiltz, has already taken Unifor President Jerry Dias and Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union president Warren “Smokey” Thomas to task for their participation in Ford’s political stunt.

Like Hiltz, I was equally frustrated to see labour leaders provide cover for a premier who no more than a year ago delayed taking the necessary steps to save workers’ lives during a deadly pandemic. Unifor’s Dias, while certainly not fawning over Ford, nevertheless found the $15 minimum wage a sufficient enough gain to hold a news conference with the premier.

Samuel Gompers, the founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor, and proponent of “pure and simple unionism,” famously called for labour to “reward its friends and punish its enemies.” By this, Gompers meant that labour should eschew organized political action, remain non-partisan and vote according to what politicians of any stripe would do for workers. Needless to say, Gompers was no friend of socialists or the left, particularly those who thought workers needed their own political party.

Some of today’s labour leaders act in much the same fashion. Certain segments of the labour movement practice and advocate so-called “strategic voting,” despite the scant evidence for its efficacy or ability to deliver for workers. Although “strategic voting” is most often used to keep Conservatives out of office, it’s not a huge stretch to see the minimum wage press conference featuring Ford, Dias and Thomas as strategic voting’s logical extension. Once divorced from any commitment to a labour-based political party (i.e., the NDP), labour leaders find themselves open to “rewarding” those who toss crumbs to workers ahead of election time — even someone as reprehensible and clearly bad for workers as Doug Ford.

I have my suspicions that the slew of “pro-worker” policy announcements coming from the Ford Conservatives over the past several weeks are frontloading “good” news before the introduction of new, likely awful, labour legislation addressing gig work and employee misclassification. Recall that the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, which was stacked with tech industry insiders and completely excluded labour, finished its “public consultations” at the end of July. Its “findings” and recommendations have yet to be released, but don’t be surprised if permanently exempting gig workers from employment standards and labour law is top of the list.

If this turns out to be the case, those labour leaders who stood by Ford as he announced a belated and insufficient minimum wage increase should be more than a little embarrassed.