BC’s Fight for $15 can’t wait

By Daniel Tseghay and Derrick O’Keefe

Jes Alford, of Sooke B.C., works at a grocery store and cares enough about her job that she often comes in early. But to supplement her minimum wage income she collects bottles and cans on the weekends, visits food banks, and usually only eats one meal a day. Earning a part-time wage with kids and a husband living with a disability, Alford’s income of about $400 a week isn’t nearly enough.b1471

Alford is just one of around 120,000 other British Columbians earning the minimum wage of $11.35. Many are below the poverty line even if they work full-time – especially if they have dependents. Another 421,400 people in B.C. earn less than $15 an hour. Fifty-nine per cent of them are women and 62% of minimum wage earners are women. This reflects a more widespread pay equity problem in the B.C., with the province’s median wage being $22.49 per hour while that of women is only $20.52. New immigrants, people of colour, workers with disabilities, Indigenous workers, and LGBTQ+ workers are also disproportionately earning lower wages. And contrary to what’s commonly believed, 76% of people earning less than the $15/hr are not students.

These workers are often employed at large, profitable businesses, dispelling the common myth that increasing the minimum wage would hurt small businesses. Only 28% of workers in B.C. earning less than $15/hr work at small businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

There are also many workers who aren’t even earning B.C.’s low minimum wage. Live-in caregivers, farmworkers who are paid a piece rate, liquor servers, and live-in camp leaders are all exempt from minimum wage laws.

Countering another common myth, the BC Federation of Labour’s submission to the Commission explains that a significant wage increase isn’t unprecedented and is unlikely to hurt the economy. “In 1972, the minimum wage was increased 83.3% over four years. In 1980, wages were lifted by 21.7%. And most recently, in 2011, the minimum wage increased by 28% over a one-period moving from $8 per hour to $10.25 per hour—the first increase in over a decade,” reads the submission. “Despite claims that such a significant lift would cause job loss, BC’s unemployment rate declined after the 2011/2012 increases. The unemployment rate in 2010 before the lift was 7.6%. Following the lift, the rate dropped: 2011 to 7.5%; 2012 to 6.8%; 2013 to 6.6%; 2014 to 6.1%.”

And finally there’s the myth that increasing the minimum wage will also increase the cost of living, undermining whatever gains are made. But when the minimum wage went up by 28% in 2011, the consumer price index, which measures the real cost of goods and services, stayed at a lower rate.

With these myths – often cravenly advanced by businesses seeking further profits at the expense of working people – set aside, we can seriously consider what we need.

Like Alford, a lot of people in B.C. are really struggling. They’re making tough choices about basic necessities like what and how often to eat. They’re putting a lot of their income towards their housing. They’re struggling with debts and, often, it looks like there’s no end in sight. Housing affordability continues to explode out of range for so many working people in Vancouver, Victoria, and throughout the province.

The Metro Vancouver area is particularly challenging. It has the second highest working poverty rate (where you earn more than $3,000 a year but somewhere below the Low Income Measure of $25,000) in Canada, according to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report called Working Poverty in Metro Vancouver. In part, this is because Vancouver’s rents are among the highest in the world, with a two-bedroom apartment going for nearly double that of one in Montreal.

18,000 Vancouverites are currently spending over 50% of their income on rent. Average rents for a one-bedroom apartment are over $2,000 – higher than the earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker. The crisis of affordability for working people in Vancouver – recently named by TIME magazine as the most expensive city in North America – means that bold political campaigns are more necessary now than ever.

In the recent civic by-election, we were both part of the independent campaign to elect Jean Swanson, a long-time housing activist. She called for what the city’s working classes need: a Rent Freeze and a tax the rich proposal featuring a proposal for a progressive property tax, or Mansion Tax.

And although she had no party machine behind her, and in spite of attacks from centre-left opponents who derided her for stoking “class warfare,” Swanson’s campaign struck a nerve. The Rent Freeze proposal, which calls for a four-year freeze on rent increases, was accompanied by a petition which galvanized a large team of volunteers, garnered thousands of signatures, and set the agenda for all-candidates debates.

The Jean Swanson campaign showed not only that people are receptive to clear, bold political demands that would improve their lives – it also showed that people want to be part of fighting back. The campaign attracted hundreds of volunteers, allowing for neighborhood-based outreach to renters in particular. We think this is a sign of the latent political energy that a Fight for $15 campaign in B.C. could tap into.

Stopping rent hikes and increasing the minimum wage are two essential steps for lifting tens of thousands out of poverty. And, while the B.C. government finally has a poverty-reduction strategy under the BCNDP, we need to go much further.

There’s no reason that a grassroots petition effort calling for a fast implementation of $15/hr couldn’t achieve a similar political impact. Not only is it necessary in the aftermath of a BC Liberal government that only made paltry, incremental raises to the minimum wage – it can be done.

When the BCNDP took power over the summer, low-wage workers were understandably thrilled with the demise of the Liberals and looking forward to a raise. During the election campaign this year, the party promised a relatively cautious $15/hr minimum wage by 2021 – which falls short of Alberta reaching $15/hr by 2018 or Ontario in 2019.

But that (already slow) timeline was thrown into doubt earlier this fall, and the NDP-led government appointed a Fair Wages Commission to determine the timeline, reconsider current exemptions, and evaluate the gap between the minimum and the province’s various living wages. While the Commission might end up calling for a shorter timeline, it’ll likely still be too long and workers in B.C. can’t afford to wait any longer for $15/hr.

The Commission, headed by labour economist Marjorie Cohen, has a tight deadline: their report is due 90 days from their first meeting. So the report will be on BCNDP Premier John Horgan’s desk early in 2018. With a new Budget expected sometime in February, that means the window for influencing the government’s decision is narrow.

The labour movement and its allies should seize this opportunity and push hard for a faster implementation of the $15/hr minimum wage. Not only should they push the NDP not to backtrack beyond the 2021 deadline for $15/hr that they campaigned on; they should in fact push for faster implementation. The affordability emergency requires it.

The BC Federation of Labour has called for $15/hr by January 2019. That’s a good demand. The arguments the BCFED and others made at the Commission have been compelling, but now they need to ramp up the public mobilization in order to compel the government to do the right thing. While the Fair Wages Commission is a real opportunity for workers to make tangible gains this province still needs a movement to ensure the minimum wage goes up quickly and that there is enough power to resist whatever pushback might come.

In Ontario, for instance, it was only through massive, sustained, and widespread public mobilization that workers were recently able to achieve such important changes.

Late last month, the province’s Fight for $15 and Fairness movement not only won a significant and timely wage increase – it secured a number of important concessions. They won an
extension of Personal Emergency Leave days to all workers; improved rules around on-call and cancelled shifts; card-check certification, which makes it easier to unionize, for workers in construction, home care, and employed by temp agencies; equal-pay language for part-time workers; and more important changes.

675,000 minimum wage workers in Ontario will see a 30 percent wage increase and, in total, 1.7 million workers, disproportionately women and racialized workers, will see a direct pay increase. Their wage increases will likely push up wages for others who are earning only a little over $15/hr as well.

“The achievements in Bill 148 did not come out of thin air nor were they bequeathed to workers by a benevolent Liberal government,” write Rankandfile.ca editors David Bush and Doug Nesbitt. “A persistent, determined movement, built from below by workers themselves, wrenched the $15 minimum wage and other reforms from employers and the government.”

Low-wage workers and allies organized groups in their communities, post-secondary institutions, and workplaces. They petitioned, rallied, tabled, phone banked, door knocked, and leafletted. “This was not an insular or top-down campaign, but one predicated on building grassroots leadership across sectors,” write Bush and Nesbitt.

We need this kind of grassroots movement in B.C. While the Fair Wages Commission is certainly an opportunity it doesn’t replace a campaign built by and informed by low-wage workers who may not necessarily be embedded in the traditional labour movement.

It doesn’t escape our notice, for instance, that it was Ontario’s Workers’ Action Centre that spearheaded the successful campaign and that they initially experienced a significant amount of resistance from established labour leaders. “Some circles didn’t appreciate the movement’s orientation toward mass outreach,” write Bush and Nesbitt. “Early on, a fair number of labor leaders said organizers would never win $15 and that they should drop it because it was outside the Changing Workplaces Review’s purview. But campaign organizers rejected the idea that the government should dictate worker priorities.”

We need a grassroots movement because it alone can accurately reflect the needs and interests of the people organizers and leaders claim to represent. And only such a campaign will be strong enough, committed enough, and flexible enough to resist ongoing efforts to rollback gains. Next year, for instance, Ontario is holding a provincial election and the Tories have explicitly stated they would postpone wage increases to 2022 should they win. The fight in Ontario isn’t over; in many ways it’s just starting.

When the BCNDP wins government in B.C., the business class gets mobilized. Unfortunately the labour movement too often gets timid or co-opted, convinced that backroom conversations are more important than public pressure and mobilization. With the BCNDP under sustained pressure from the corporate class, this is a recipe for disappointment and defeat.

The more public pressure that can be mobilized in the coming weeks and months, the more likely the BCNDP government will adopt a faster timeline and the less effective the business backlash will be. The workers of this province need this and we need it now.

When it comes to raising the minimum wage to $15/hr, it’s time for a movement in B.C.

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