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Restaurant lobby launches campaign to elect UCP, roll back $15 minimum wage

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Workers in a steamy kitchen preparing food. Photo: John Legrand/Wikimedia Commons

Alberta's perpetually dissatisfied restaurant owners find themselves in such difficult straits they're investing their hard-earned dollars in a high-profile PR campaign to make sure we all understand just how tough they have it -- and while they're at it, maybe they can get us to elect a right-wing government that will roll back that $15-per-hour minimum wage they're so unhappy about.

This morning, Restaurants Canada, the industry's national lobby, will launch the campaign at a Calgary restaurant where, you can bet on it, the wait staff will be pressed, spit-shined and ready to explain why they don't need no stinkin' $15 every time they work an hour.

"The campaign sheds light on the difficult realities restaurants are facing in Alberta and how restaurateurs are in desperate need of relief from a perfect storm of legislative and regulatory changes," says a media alert sent out by the organization's public relations counsel.

Even without the media alert, though, it should be obvious Alberta's restaurant lobby has enlisted the help of competent public relations professionals. Leastways, the tone of their latest campaign is designed to persuade you, dear readers, that their policy proposals -- viz., graduated minimum wages with lower rates for young workers and liquor servers, lower standards for overtime pay, less pay for working holidays, and so on -- are for the good of us all, not just the pride and pocketbooks of restaurant owners.

This is a change from the shrill tone that characterized the industry's reaction to the plan by the NDP government led by Premier Rachel Notley to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in several steps that was introduced soon after the party's election in May 2015. That included warnings many restaurants would soon close (few if any ever did) and that 3 a.m. fast food was doomed to perish from the earth (it didn't).

The $15-per-hour minimum wage was finally implemented last year, and at the time Opposition Leader Jason Kenney told his backers he wouldn't roll it back.

But yesterday, with the lobby group's campaign booting up, he appeared to backslide on that pledge, telling participants in a Restaurants Canada event in Edmonton he'd consider lower minimum wages for young workers and people who serve booze. His comments were accompanied by a characteristic little parable about the waiters he talks to, and how they're not all that enthusiastic about the NDP's higher minimum wage.

"The NDP raising wages during the middle of a recession, including on teenagers in entry-level positions, was a massive job killer," Kenney claimed while talking to reporters, although there is precious little evidence to support that assertion, and some say it's wrong.

Speaking at the Rotary Club of Calgary, Premier Notley called Kenney's two-tiered revisionism "a massive, massive loophole through which we can expect many employers to drop through at the expense of workers."

"It should come as no surprise," she added, "that roughly two-thirds of those workers who will lose out through this policy announcement made today are women."

Restaurants Canada was founded in 1944 as the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association to oppose wartime measures by the government of prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, such as rationing and menu price-controls to aid the desperate fight against Nazi Germany, when they cut into restaurateurs' profits.

Just how much the Alberta restaurant owners are spending on this campaign is not immediately clear. (I've asked the question, and I'll get back to you if I get an answer.) Their electoral program, however, is explicit, as is their right, judging from what their spokesman said on CBC Radio yesterday. The organization is registered as a third-party election advertiser.

As reported in this space back in 2014, Restaurants Canada is part of a group of well-financed organizations with many connections among one another and a history of advocating for anti-union legislation, low wages and the use of foreign workers over Canadians.

At the time, Kenney was the federal minister of employment and Restaurants Canada was at the forefront of a campaign demanding that he drop a plan to reduce temporary foreign worker (TFW) numbers, which had been reluctantly introduced by the Harper government in the face of public revulsion at the program's apparent goals of exploiting vulnerable foreign workers and suppressing Canadian wages.

Many of the same claims were trotted out then about the impact of restricted access to TFWs as are now being made about the effect of laws requiring a higher minimum wage and fair treatment of restaurant workers.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups also includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, "Working Canadians," the Canadian Labour Watch Association, and the Merit Contractors Association, which is also now a third-party advertiser supporting the UCP.

The Alberta Election Commissioner has ruled that the CTF also acted as a third-party advertiser without registering as required by law, but that organization has not paid its fine and says it intends to challenge the $6,000 administrative penalty in the courts.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: John Legrand/Wikimedia Commons

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