In an election year pledge that is both a woefully insufficient step in the "right" direction and an act of supreme political cynicism, Ontario's Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised an immediate hike of the minimum wage in Ontario to $11 an hour, after having frozen it since 2010.
It is a smart move. With the likelihood of the minority parliament falling in the coming months, it is a small, token gesture toward the large numbers of citizens worried about growing inequality. It also has the virtue, from a Liberal point of view, of being small. Other than putting up the usual resistance, very few, even in the business community, have gotten, or are likely to get, too worked up about it.
In part this is due to the ongoing effort by a coalition of labour groups and community activists to get the minimum wage raised to $14 an hour, a prospect that no doubt terrifies the business class, even though it really is the bare minimum needed to live above the poverty line in centres like Toronto. No doubt they realize that $11 an hour represents a victory of sorts.
While Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour called the Liberal proposal of tying the minimum wage in future to inflation "revolutionary in a way," this is a proposal also supported by many business groups (and had been in advance of it), and is especially appealing in the present context of relatively low inflation and the very real possibility of future deflation. This "revolutionary" proposal may likely not lead to a $14 or $15 an hour minimum wage for a generation.
More difficult to understand, for some, is the ONDP's apparent reluctance to take a strong stand on this issue consistent with its alleged social activist and labour allies.
To date, while some of its caucus members have been slightly more outspoken, the leader driven party has not strayed from its message of boutique appeals to minor consumerist middle class issues and its pandering to the fiction of the small business "job creator." While it is true that small businesses create many jobs, it is also true, especially in the absence of an industrial or neo-industrial state job creation strategy, that the jobs they create are often not even worthy of the term "McJob." They are, overall, without any question the lowest paying jobs and rarely have any benefits of any meaning.
The ONDP also distorts what a "small business" is. When it calls for a reduction in the small business tax rate, as it does, it fails to mention that this applies only to incorporated "small" businesses, which are often not even the romanticised vision that some have of "Mom and Pop" businesspeople toiling away long hours for their "community." Many incorporated "small businesses" are professionals attempting to minimize taxes, small landlords, etc. It is a designation that is about liability and tax law; nothing else. Many, many, small retail business people, like corner store owners, small coffee shops, independent online retailers, etc., are not incorporated at all and function instead as self-employed sole proprietorships or partnerships under tax law.
Not only does the ONDP's proposed "small business" tax cut not cover them (not that they actually need a tax cut, given that round after round of personal tax cuts have them covered), the party disingenuously claims to represent them with this policy when it does not.
Never mind that despite holding the balance of power, the ONDP has done nothing to force the minimum wage issue. Horwath and the ONDP have also been working for many years, however, to distance themselves from being seen as a programmatically leftist party backing systemic changes of any meaning, and have instead focused on traditionally right wing ideas of placing emphasis on the "cost of living" in a consumerist sense as opposed to on the traditionally leftist notion of alleviating poverty and social inequality through comprehensive social programs.
An Ontario voter forwarded me a reply that he received, after emailing the office of NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh and asking him and the ONDP to support a $14 an hour minimum wage. His office wrote back:
In regards to your concerns about the minimum wage increase, we understand the frustrations of Ontarians. Families are getting squeezed, their bills are going up, fees are rising, hydro costs are skyrocketing, and families just can’t keep up. Responsible working families who work hard for forty hours a week, should not be living in poverty. Hard work and responsibility should be compensated with a fair and reasonable wage. The ONDP has a long history of working with the OFL and applaud their grass roots work to have the minimal wage increased. We look forward to seeing what they bring to the debate, as many of their previous campaigns have helped shape the growth and betterment of Ontario.
This is very telling. Among other things, it perpetuates that awful fiction of the "worthy" versus "unworthy" poor, directly implying in its language that those who are not working, for whatever reason, have been laid off, or cannot find full time work (and many workers are forced to work what are legally regarded as part-time jobs) are not "responsible." One might ask, should "irresponsible families," or, heaven forbid, people without "families," unable to find work "forty hours a week," be living in poverty?
Beyond that, in seeking to avoid answering the inquiry, which it tried very hard to do, the response focuses on "bills," "fees," "hydro costs," etc., completely disingenuously implying that these are the reasons that people are feeling the "pinch" as opposed to the fact that many in the working class, and even the middle class, are not making a living wage.
By focusing on the consumerist issues the ONDP avoid tackling the actual underpinnings of inequality and injustice; the downward pressures on wages and the lack of a forceful commitment by any political party to living wages. By implying there is a "debate" as to what the minimum wage should be, they are directly saying that business people who feel the minimum wage should be kept low have a position worthy of consideration.
All one has to do, frankly, is look at the shockingly reactionary by-election ad for ONDP candidate Wayne Gates. The video ad talks about how Tim Hudak did not do enough in the great struggle of "rewarding job creators" and making sure slot machines stayed in race tracks! This is an interesting vision of social democracy.
Nowhere does it talk about higher wages or economic equality issues.
Horwath and the ONDP, however, has been actively courting the "905" area code suburban vote by seeking to jump on the perceived coattails of Rob Ford style right wing "pocket book" populism. Hence their fixation on consumerist issues like HST hydro cuts, auto insurance rates, opposing obviously environmentally beneficial "car taxes" and the like, while having no alternative funding visions for important social objectives like Toronto transit expansion other than vague promises about "corporations" somehow paying for it all. They will, of course, pay for nothing.
The calculation is obviously that Horwath thinks Ford still has an appeal among 905ers and that the NDP can somehow harness this. This calculation is very open for debate. What is not open for debate is that it leaves workers in low wage jobs, the Precariat, entirely out of the equation.
Minimum wage and non-"middle class" workers do not primarily need small cuts to hydro bills, auto insurance rates (if they even own a car), or to have the worst employers in the economy "rewarded" for creating bad jobs, they need higher wages, expanded and free transit, universal daycare, pharmacare, and the types of universal social programs "progressives" and social democrats once actually fought for. They need a wage and job strategy that is not centered around the economy's worst and least reliable employers, "small business."
They need active parliamentary political representation that will fight for living wages and economic justice.