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From Minimum Wage to Minimum Program

Canadian PoliticsSocial Movements

It’s time to fight for a shift from a minimum wage to a minimum program.

It is no surprise in this age of deteriorating working conditions and poverty wages, of precarious work and growing recourse to temporary foreign labour, of spiraling inequality and obscene executive compensation, that organized labour and social movements would see fit to press for an increase in the minimum wage.

According to a remarkable report by McMaster University and United Way Toronto, barely half of working adults in Greater Toronto and Hamilton have full-time jobs with benefits and expect to be working for their current employer a year from now.

The other half are working part-time or full-time with no benefits or job security, or in temporary, contractual or casual positions. They work in places like McDonalds, Walmart, the cleaning and service sectors, and in manufacturing, where they are often “on call” and subject to irregular work hours. But they can just as soon be found in universities and in the offices of major corporations.

They are not all low paid, but most are. They are more often women and immigrants. They often feel powerless to complain or turn down hours or assignments for fear of losing their job or the next contract. All this suits the interests of owners and managers very nicely.

None of these jobs are unionized, of course. With the elimination of thousands of jobs in some of the biggest companies (almost 500,000 manufacturing jobs have vanished in the past decade), it is little wonder that trade unions are in decline. Before the great expansion of trade unionism after World War II, most jobs everywhere were precarious. Unions turned a significant number into jobs with regular wage hikes, benefits such as pensions, health and safety provisions and, for the first time, some say in the workplace.

The strong presence of unions helped curb inequality to some degree. As Leo Panitch notes: “…the reason CEOs didn’t pay themselves the astronomical amounts they pay themselves today was precisely because of the bad example it set in terms of the next collective bargaining round.” In recent years the difference between regular employees’ pay and CEO compensation has grown to 122-1 at Canada’s biggest firms, up from an average of 84-1 a decade ago and substantially less again 50 years ago.

The announced intention of Ontario’s Liberal government to raise the province’s minimum wage from $10.25 an hour to $11.00, while better than nothing, does little to pull Ontario’s half-million minimum wage earners out of poverty, let alone make a dent in income inequality.

The $14.00 target of anti-poverty groups and the labour movement would move the minimum wage closer to a living wage level, but even this must be seen as barely the beginning of what needs to be a comprehensive campaign for better paying jobs and greater income equality.

We need to:

  • Press politicians to legislate a maximum pay differential of, say, 25 times between the best and worst paid employees in all companies;

  • Call for the elimination of tax loopholes and tax havens, and for restoration of an inheritance tax;

  • Build support for the idea of raising rates of taxation on corporate profit and high incomes to levels comparable to those in effect 50 years ago;

  • Encourage organized labour to declare a day of action—perhaps on a rotating basis in every city across the country—to support low income workers struggling for higher pay and union recognition;

  • Fight for a moratorium on cuts to social services and turn that struggle into one for an expansion of existing services and the creation of new ones, such as universal child care and pharmacare, as well as better pensions (think that’s unrealistic? Consider that, sitting at about 13 percent, total federal government spending as a share of the economy is now at a 70-year low!);

  • Push for a generous interpretation of treaty rights as has been called for by the Supreme Court of Canada;

  • Support the development, and funding, of Aboriginally controlled national strategies to improve housing, education, healthcare, social services and the administration of justice;

  • Push for the elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and invest those same resources massively in renewable energy resources;

  • Call for the exchange of corporations’ vast pools of unspent cash for long-term government bonds, and insist that the money be used to put the unemployed and underemployed to work rebuilding Canada’s crumbling cities and building public transit infrastructure across the country;

  • Wage a campaign for the conversion of banks into a public utility where our savings can be channeled into investing in public needs rather than corporate profits;

  • Finally, in light of pitiful minimum wages and social allowances and the absence of universal pensions, we should pursue a new discussion of the old idea of a guaranteed annual income.

Readers of Canadian Dimension know that none of this will happen overnight and merely because we ask for it. To paraphrase Sam Gindin: beyond protests and resistance and defeating Harper, what we need to do is build organizations to support struggles in the workplace and in the streets; we must find ways to educate ourselves and clarify our goals; we have to bring new people into the movement, strategize collectively, learn from defeats and partial victories and invent a vibrant culture of resistance grounded in solidarity. It’s a Herculean task, we know. Let’s get to work.

This article appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Canadian Dimension (Economies in Transition).


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