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Fast food and fair wages: What happens when a good idea from Alberta hits the big time in New York?

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Andrew Cuomo

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Alberta's New Democratic Party government got a powerful boost from an unexpected quarter yesterday for its plan, which is controversial among certain well-heeled interest groups, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018.

Readers will not need to be particularly alert to have heard the way that most special of special interests, the fast food industry, squawked loudly and at length about the NDP plan, forecasting fiscal apocalypse for Alberta and, even worse, reduced hours and higher prices for blotto burgers slung into idling cars from 24-hour drive-through windows at the sides of suburban commercial strips.

High on the fast-food merchants' menu of unpersuasive arguments was the claim nobody else was doing it and, what's more, that the increase proposed by the government of Premier Rachel Notley was a Whopper -- an "unprecedented" 47 per cent. This was inevitably rounded up to 50 per cent by the usual suspects in right-wing think tankery, Astro-Turf business advocacy, mainstream media, chambers of commerce, political parties cultivated by deep-pocketed corporations and the rest of the cacophonous Canadian outrage industry.

So while no one is about to claim that New York City and Edmonton or Calgary are part of the same market, the symbolic effect of the announcement today that New York State, with New York City in the vanguard, is on the verge of mandating a major increase in the minimum wage is bound to be significant.

A panel of experts struck by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, yesterday recommended that the state minimum wage, specifically for employees of fast-food restaurants, rise in stages to $15 (US) an hour from the state's current $8.75 minimum. That’s an increase of more than 71 per cent, if you happen to be the calculating sort. And it should be implemented first in New York City, by 2018, the panel said. The rest of the state would follow by 2020.

The panel's recommendation is a virtual certainty to be adopted by the state Legislature in Albany, The New York Times reported, in what was the main story on its website throughout the day.

"Advocates for low-wage workers said they believed the mandate would quickly spur raises for employees in other industries across the state, and a jubilant Mr. Cuomo predicted that other states would follow his lead," the Times reported, quoting the governor as stating: "When New York acts, the rest of the states follow. We've always been different, always been first, always been the most progressive."

Well, maybe in the United States…

Sound familiar? Fifteen dollars, albeit in Canada's devalued currency, by 2018.

To be fair, several other important U.S. locations implemented similar wage policies before either Alberta or New York started getting serious about it -- among them, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Kansas City, Mo.

Labour and social justice activists in the United States have targeted the fast-food industry for its endemic poverty wages, arguing that the low wages that paid for huge profits and massive executive salaries end up being subsidized by taxpayers through food stamps and other welfare payments.

This was exactly the approach brazenly demanded by Alberta fast-food operators when the spectre of paying living wages began to haunt them hours after the NDP was elected on May 5. Let the taxpayers pick up the tab, they pleaded, rather than making us pay a living wage!

As previously noted in this space, most of the arguments trotted out against higher minimum wages introduced in modest stages as the NDP proposes -- especially the threat businesses will just stop hiring employees -- do not hold much water. Economics 101 suggests, indeed, that many local merchants will do better as low-wage employees spend their money locally, often on things like fast food.

Comments under yesterday's New York Times story made pretty much the same arguments, trotted out as if by rote by both sides here in Alberta, with one interesting exception, the suggestion that rather than pay a living wage, fast food restaurants would replace human servers with smartphone apps and touch-screen ordering.

They'll try that, of course, with or without a fair minimum wage, and consumers will resist it furiously, just as they have in grocery stores and gas stations.

Indeed, it's interesting to note that here in Alberta, fuel station operators have given up trying to shove so-called "pay-at-the-pump" systems down the throats of consumers -- who hate them -- as inconvenient, unsafe and insulting.

Instead, they are feverishly lobbying governments to legislate such automated payment schemes as a supposed "safety measure" to protect employees from criminals. This anti-worker idea has already become law in B.C.

In reality, the goal of the profitable corporations pushing this idea is not to protect their employees, but to eliminate those workers' jobs, thereby further padding their corporate bottom lines.

And the way to protect low-wage employees is not to eliminate unskilled work by getting the government to ban consumer choices -- an idea one would think market fundamentalist corporations and their advocates would abhor -- but by enacting working-alone legislation and ensuring employees understand that employers can't legally dock their pay if some thief takes off without paying for a tank of gas.

One hopes the Notley Government will not be duped by such deceptive lobbying, as have some social justice organizations that ought to know better and see the true agenda behind such proposals.

On minimum wages, thankfully, our government is on the right track. And now, if they waver, they have the big, bright, noisy, culturally overpowering example of New York City -- which is going farther in relative terms, and just as quickly -- to shore them up.

After all, if capitalists can pay a living wage in the "capital of capitalism" -- which will certainly survive the shock -- surely our local businesses are up to the challenge of doing the right thing!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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