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By Sid Ryan
A few weeks ago I was strolling through Cabbagetown, one of the toniest areas in Toronto’s east end where million-dollar homes butt up against subsidized housing complexes.
As I walked past an obviously affluent man getting out of a BMW, two homeless men walking towards me were scanning the sidewalk for cigarette butts. Later, I ducked into a coffee shop and, over the warmth of the brew, could not help but ponder a line from a Lewis Carroll poem that perfectly described the earlier scene.
Of cabbages and kings can also be the metaphor used to describe the debate raging inside Queen’s Park as politicians wrestle with Ontario’s minimum wage. On one side, you have the working poor backed up by the NDP. On the other side, you have big and small business lobbyists backed by the Liberals and Conservatives.
Cheri DiNovo, the recently elected NDP MPP from Parkdale-High Park, sparked the debate when she introduced a private member’s bill designed to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 an hour. The legislation, opposed by both the Liberals and Tories, exposes the soft underbelly of the governing Liberals and, at the same time, conjures up images of the mean-spirited Mike Harris era for the Tories.
In short, the NDP has found an effective wedge issue, especially when combined with the insensitivity the Liberals and Conservatives showed by voting themselves a 25 per cent wage increase while tossing 25 cents at the working poor. Is it any wonder the voting public has lost faith in our electoral system?
The movement for a higher minimum wage is not confined to Ontario; it is sweeping the industrialized world. (Read more about it at www.amillionreasons.ca.)
This past week, the United States Senate voted 94-3 in favour of raising the federal minimum wage from US$5.15 to US$7.25 an hour. Interestingly, while the US National Federation of Independent Businesses opposed the move, a fairly recent survey of their membership placed minimum wage hikes at number 67 out of 72 issues of importance to small businesses.
Likewise, in Ontario, the lobbyists for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses were shedding crocodile tears to the Ontario Liberals about the negative impact minimum wage hikes have on the province’s working poor.
Am I hearing this right? The CFIB lobbyists are crying over the working poor? And all the while, they lobby provincial and federal governments to make it as difficult as possible for those same workers to join a union. All the while, they attack workers’ pension plans. Go figure.
Thank God, the members don’t all share the same opinions as CFIB bosses Catherine Swift and Judith Andrew. (And we could devote a whole other column on how they could be helping their members instead by working to build a pension plan for small business owners.)
In 2003, a CFIB survey showed their membership was split right down the middle on the question of raising the minimum wage: 46% were opposed, 42% supported, while 10% had no opinion.
Of course, the great fallacy in this debate is that most minimum wage earners work for small business. In fact, only 29% do. The vast majority work for large corporations like fast food chains, big box retailers, temp agencies or the public sector.
Vastly overlooked are the thousands of public sector workers who earn less than $10 an hour. Professionals looking after our children in child care centres are paid abysmal wages. So too are many community agency employees who provide a range of services and supports to children, adults, families, persons with disabilities, the elderly all sorts of people in our communities.
Part-time workers at the venerable University of Toronto Press have just taken a strike vote to pressure their employer into raising their wages to $10 an hour.
What is desperately needed is to pass the minimum wage bill and then tie it to the consumer price index, ensuring that low wages go up as the cost of living does. If we had tied the minimum wage to the CPI 30 years ago, the average across Canada today would be $9.41.
This is a far more sensible and fair approach to dealing with the minimum wage. And, it has the added benefit of eliminating this rancorous debate whenever we try to make life a little easier for the less well off.