From Minimum Wage to Minimum Program

Canadian Dimension, March-April 2014 | Go to article overview

From Minimum Wage to 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 spiralling 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 McDonald's, 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. …

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