Time to serve up a union for Tim Hortons workers

Photo: Caribb/Flickr

No doubt the offspring of the Tim Hortons business empire regret their clumsy attempt to make themselves just a little bit richer.

After years of the coffee chain being feted as some sort of national icon, its heirs managed to erase much of that goodwill faster than you can pick up a drive-thru double-double, and in the process solidify support for the province’s controversial hike in the minimum wage.

Apparently thinking nobody would find out, the daughter of hockey player Tim Horton and the son of his business partner Ron Joyce, who are married to each other in a plot twist worthy of the Game of Thrones, sent a note to their grossly underpaid employees from their winter home in Florida informing them that their benefits -- including 40 minutes a day of paid breaks -- were being clawed back to compensate for the new $14-an-hour minimum wage.

Jeri-Lynn Horton-Joyce and Ron Joyce Jr. -- whose father has a net worth of $1.4 billion -- expressed “great regret” for the clawbacks, apparently convinced there was no other option. The market made me do it!

Short of Donald Trump himself striding into a Tim Hortons and insulting the serving staff, it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to galvanize support for the higher minimum wage. Even Conservative leader Patrick Brown feels obliged to support the hike, although he wants to delay the move to a $15 minimum from next year to 2022.

Minimum wages have long been a favourite whipping boy of business commentators, who insist they result in job losses.

But Tim Hortons doesn’t hire and retain workers out of generosity or goodwill; it does so because it needs them to serve customers.

And it can’t avoid higher wages by moving its business to some offshore country; its customers are here and they like their coffee served hot.

Indeed, despite fear-mongering about job losses when Alberta began hiking its minimum wage in 2015, jobs in its low-wage service sector actually grew by 12,400 last year, along with the rest of its economy.

Business advocates protest minimum wages for interfering with the “free market.” They make it sound like the market is some sort of natural system that operates according to basic, natural laws -- like the laws of gravity -- and that we tamper with it at our peril.

In fact, the market is nothing more than a set of human-made laws -- governing property, contracts, labour, taxes, etc.

Rather than being based on natural principles, the laws of the marketplace simply reflect the power structure of society. Those with power are able to bend the laws in their own favour.

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s decision to raise the minimum wage merely rebalances things a tiny little bit in favour of those at the bottom, after decades in which the increasingly powerful business elite has managed to tilt things ever more to its own benefit.

If Wynne had wanted to seriously address the tremendous imbalance created by growing corporate dominance, she would have gone farther by, for instance, strengthening labour laws so workers in franchise operations like Tim Hortons are more able to unionize, as Marty Warren argued in the Star last week.

Once we acknowledge that the market is not a natural phenomenon -- but rather something we as a society collectively create -- we start to realize we’re not stuck with a market that only serves the interests of a few at the top.

In a thoughtful piece in Maclean’s, political scientist David Moscrop argues that the minimum wage debate is really about how we want to treat our most vulnerable citizens.

Business advocates want us to believe that we will pay a steep price in terms of economic well-being for paying attention to these sorts of soft-hearted concerns.

But the Scandinavian countries have amply demonstrated this isn’t true. They’ve created highly successful market economies that are routinely ranked among the Top 10 in global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum in Geneva, yet they’ve virtually eliminated poverty and have income distribution far more equal than ours.

Maybe we’re not yet ready to embrace the Scandinavian model; admittedly, six weeks paid vacation would take some adjustment.

But my guess is many of us are ready to shift the power balance further down the food chain.

For helping us move in this direction, we have the Tim Hortons heirs to thank. For once, I’m inclined to agree with the hoopla about the important contribution of Tim Hortons to our national psyche.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Mythswas among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." A version of this column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.  

Photo: Caribb/Flickr​

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