By fighting to raise the minimum wage labour is aiming to reconnect with its roots.
By Crystal Warner
A recent study by Oxfam predicts that by 2016, the 80 richest people in the world will hold as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people. In an effort to address income inequality, the British Columbia Federation of Labour is pushing ahead with its Fight for $15 campaign.
The minimum wage in BC has remained stagnant at $10.25/hr for over three years, making it one of the lowest in Canada. Full-time workers in BC are living below the poverty line. Some 120,000 British Columbians literally work to keep themselves in poverty. Another 517,000 earn $15 per hour or less. To make matters worse, BC has arguably the highest cost of living in the country making it that much harder for workers to make ends meet.
The idea that minimum wage workers are high school kids flipping burgers is an antiquated stereotype. The reality of minimum wage workers is quite different: 47% of minimum wage workers in BC are 25 or older; nearly two thirds are women; almost 10,000 are over the age of 55; approximately half are employed by companies with more than 500 employees; 14% hold university degrees; and the majority have been working the same job for at least a year. Workers in the service and agriculture industries are in even more dire straits as they can be paid as little as $9 an hour.
Laura Jones, with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, has a lot to say about the Fight for $15 campaign. Calling the debate tired and lacking creativity, Jones cites ‘numerous studies’ that allegedly prove that wage increases hurt small businesses and result in overall job losses.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives disagrees with Jones, claiming that past increases to the minimum wage were too little too late. The Centre argues that even the current $10.25 puts workers so far below the poverty line that an increase would not reduce poverty but merely elevate workers closer to the poverty line.
“We’re broadening the tent,’ says Ekman, ‘and involving as many workers as possible in the campaign. Unionized and non-unionized workers will have to work together. The government needs to see that the groundswell of support is formidable and impossible to ignore.
But we don’t need the pundits. We can look south of the border to see that raising the minimum wage in Seattle and San Francisco has led to low-income workers injecting their money back into their communities, boosting local economies instead of hurting them. Looking at the data, it would appear that what actually hurts local businesses is not a higher minimum wage but people living in poverty.
This is not the first time we have seen labour combat poverty. The labour movement has a long history of advancing the interests of all workers–particularly the most vulnerable—regardless of whether or not they belong to a union.
Calling an increase to the minimum wage a first step, the Secretary Treasurer of the BC Federation of Labour, Aaron Ekman, explains that this has become an important topic of discussion across North America. “It draws uncomfortable parallels to our economy in the 1920s. When we look at strategies to help reduce this growing gap, increasing the minimum wage is only one piece of that equation.”
Ekman explains how this fight is distinct from previous battles by the formation of a broad-based coalition. “In addition to the many affiliated unions who are taking an active part in the campaign, the working group includes large and small community groups. Campaign working groups are also being formed in communities around the province. This regional approach is important – for this campaign to succeed we need it to reach people in every corner of the province.”
Ekman points to the effectiveness of social media in gaining support. Within 24 hours of launching, the Fight for $15 campaign petition garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
‘What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all’ is the slogan of the BC Federation of Labour, and it seems nothing could better reflect the efforts of this campaign. “We’re broadening the tent,’ says Ekman, ‘and involving as many workers as possible in the campaign. Unionized and non-unionized workers will have to work together. The government needs to see that the groundswell of support is formidable and impossible to ignore. It will take visible support, petitioners on street corners, rallies, visits to MLA offices, and new creative strategies to put the pressure on. We know the support is out there. The public is on our side.”
As for those next steps, Ekman knows what he’d like to see. “Let’s look at how BC can put a plan in place to ensure that the minimum wage moves towards a living wage for all workers in the province, that doesn’t require legislative changes for every raise.”
There will be events on the 15th of every month. For more information visit fightfor15bc.ca