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Ontario's $15 minimum wage campaign just got a boost

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What a difference two years make.

In February 2014, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was gearing up for a provincial election and announced that, if elected, her government would raise Ontario's minimum wage to $12 by 2016.

A $12 promise fell considerably short of the $14 minimum wage campaign that was being waged by grassroots workers in 2014.

At the time, Horwath stated: "We know that the minimum wage needs to increase. We want to make sure that those increases don't come at too sharp or steep of a rate so that small businesses will be negatively impacted."

That focus -- placing concerns about small businesses ahead of concerns about the working poor -- didn't sit well with many progressives in Ontario at the time and contributed, in part, to Premier Kathleen Wynne's ability to gain ground as an "activist" alternative.

Flash forward to April 1, 2016: the conversation is shifting rapidly and Horwarth may find herself at the centre of it.

Since securing a majority government in the spring of 2014, the Wynne government has steadily increased the minimum wage in small increments, to $11.25 an hour.

Having done that, the only remaining commitment the Wynne government has made is to index the minimum wage to inflation every year.

For instance, on October 1, 2016, the minimum wage will go up by 15 cents, to $11.40 an hour.

A 15-cent raise.

At that snail's pace, Ontario would finally achieve a $15 minimum wage in the year 2040.

Mic drop.

With a steadfast, well-organized grassroots campaign pushing for a $15 minimum wage in Ontario now (not in 24 years), there is clearly political space to be taken up.

Enter Horwath, whose party has been undergoing public scrutiny since its 2014 electoral showing.

On April 1, Horwath delivered a speech to a national audience at the Broadbent Institute's annual Progress Summit in Ottawa, where she promised her party would raise Ontario's minimum wage to $15 an hour if elected in the next provincial election (2018).

In her speech, Horwath threw down this electoral gauntlet:

"The time for talk is over. It's time for Ontario to show leadership and will, and to make sure no one working full-time is stuck living below the poverty line. It's time for a $15 minimum wage. And if the Liberal government won't do it, then Ontarians will have an opportunity in two years to elect one that will."

Her speech was notable, not just because she has finally taken the leap to support the $15 minimum wage movement. Her speech was notable for its palpable shift in focus.

In 2014, her focus was on the small business owner.

On April 1, 2016, her focus was on low-wage workers. She talked about income inequality. About the rise in precarious work facing people with disabilities, single parents, youth, "people too young to retire, too old to start over."

She cited CCPA-Ontario Senior Economist Sheila Block's research that shows people who are racialized are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers.

In short, Horwath changed her own party's tune about the minimum wage and low-paying work in Ontario. She put it in the "window," as political strategists like to say.

What impact might this new conversation have? With an opposition party finally ready to take on the $15 an hour fight, it could push the governing Liberals to do more than settle with annual inflationary increases.

When the Wynne government struck a panel two years ago to advise the government on how to set the minimum wage in years to come, that panel fell short on addressing a rationale for setting the minimum wage within a modern context.

Right now, the minimum wage is a perennial political football that gets punted back and forth between the well-funded business lobby that trots out its prototypical small business poster child and political leaders who too often get trapped in that frame.

The problem with that frame is that it is a heavily one-sided story which prioritizes the value of business owners while dismissing the value of low-wage workers.

Just last week, I was on CBC's The Exchange talking about the $15 minimum wage being implemented in the U.K. A spokesperson for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business countered that minimum wage workers' pay is simply "a reflection of the value of that task to the organization," claiming "they can't offer the same degree of value to employers" as other workers.

It was an astounding claim -- especially when you consider many minimum wage workers are actually the public face of a business: the waitress who serves you food and drink, the cashier who processes your purchase at the corner store, the retail worker helping you find a flattering dress in a clothing store. Without them, you have no business. That sounds pretty value-added to me.

But when you push the reality of workers out of the conversation, you get statements like that.

Or this one in last week's Globe and Mail, where the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Brian Lee Crowley called minimum wage policy a "tax on jobs." Crowley writes: "Please, if the government forces me under pain of legal penalty to do something with my money, then the government is commandeering my money for its purposes. I call that a tax."

Sounds like a great line to drop over bourbon and steaks at the country club but it distorts reality.

And while it may reflect the business establishment's fixation on hyper-valuing business owners and CEOs while devaluing the rest of workers, even in Canada that conversation is shifting, as are public expectations of employers.

It's hard to watch major jurisdictions like Seattle, New York, California, and the U.K. embrace a $15 an hour minimum wage without questioning why governments would embrace a low-wage strategy in this country.

It's hard not to be moved by American service and retail workers picketing outside of Wal-Mart and McDonalds stores demanding a $15 minimum wage.

It's hard to continue to ignore the reality of low-paying, precarious work -- especially when you see bright, young people with PhDs joining the new precarious workforce. They have mad skills to offer but are being devalued in the labour market.

If Horwarth sticks to the narrative she laid out on the weekend, she could end up pushing the Wynne government to revisit the question of how to set a minimum wage benchmark.

If Ontario decided that the lowest-paid workers in our midst should earn within 60 per cent of the average wage, it would set a benchmark that served as a legitimate rationale for the minimum wage: minimum wage workers should make an hourly wage that's relative to the average of all other workers.

No more arbitrary, political football debates about who is more valued -- the business owner or the low-wage worker.

This new rationale would identify the minimum wage as one of the tools in the policy tool kit that governments can use to reduce income inequality and to reintroduce a sense of fair play in the labour market.

If Ontario chose as a benchmark that the minimum wage should be within 60 per cent of the average wage, guess what the minimum wage in Ontario would be today? About $15 an hour.

If Horwath sticks to the inequality narrative and expands her $15 an hour promise to tether the minimum wage to within 60 per cent of the average wage in Ontario, she could end up doing more than positioning herself politically.

She could end up influencing minimum wage policy in a substantive, long-lasting way.

Trish Hennessy is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario office. On Twitter: @trishhennessy. 

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