Photo: John Bonnar

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“Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash.” Such was the thoughtful advice to McDonald’s workers on a company webpage called “Digging out from Holiday Debt.”

If she worked 40 hours a week every week, which is rare, a McDonald’s worker would have to work 1,000,000 hours, or about 114 years, to earn the annual salary of the company’s CEO.

In November, a Walmart store in the U.S. held a food drive for its workers — sorry, I meant “associates.” A sign read: “Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” Walmart explained that this was an example of “associates” looking out for each other. Solidarity forever, comrades.

It would take a full-time hourly Walmart worker,who the company claims earns $12.67 an hour, more than 785 years to earn the annual salary of the company’s CEO. In fact this likely exaggerates the actual hourly wage and ignores the many workers who don’t get to work anything like a 40-hour week.

On any given day, vast numbers of Canadians and Americans either shop at a Walmart’s or eat at a McDonald’s or at one of their ubiquitous clones. If customers paid attention, they’d notice that many of their workers were not student part-timers or young people just starting their climb up the ladder of life. They are adult women and men, many have dependent families, and this is their life. Tough luck for them that the minimum wage they make happens not to be a livable wage. A 2012 study, for example, found that more than half of U.S. fast food workers are on some form of public assistance. So the American public in effect subsidizes the fast food Goliaths.

Forget about the quaint notion that a job lifts you out of poverty. In both Canada and the U.S., working for the minimum wage dooms you to poverty.

Check out the Canadian minimum wage levels. In oil-rich Alberta, it’s $9.95 an hour — the very lowest in the entire country. Everywhere else, except for Nunavut’s $11, it’s between $10 and $10.54.

In the United States, federally it’s been a pitiful $7.25 since 2007. President Obama wants to raise it to $10.10 an hour (gotta love that 10 cents). Republicans and business interests are resisting vehemently, fearful that such a crazy commie move would undermine the economy — especially that extra 10 cents.

The sheer Scrooge-nish of our minimum wage laws underlines the unprecedented riches of the business elite. Thanks to the recent work of Hugh Mackenzie for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, we know that in 2012 Canada’s top 100 CEOs took home an average of $7,960,300. The average Canadian earned $46,634 that year. But of course millions make vastly less than the average.

It’s this flagrant contrast between the few and the many that finally led to a revolt by minimum wage earners in both the U.S. and Canada. Led by unions and advocacy groups like Canada’s Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage, there’ve been strikes and demonstrations in both countries against huge retailers and fast food outlets and their predatory practices. To gauge just how desperate these workers really are, in the U.S. they’re demanding only $15 an hour, in Canada $14. Clearly even an extra few dollars an hour would make a huge difference to them and their families.

Yet the very advocates of $14 an hour acknowledge that a simple living wage in Ontario is really around $18 — and that doesn’t go far. But they recognize that the larger amount, low as it is, is a political non-starter. Yet those already making more than $14 can barely get by, as one Toronto home care worker last week made abundantly clear. Lucky to have a union, she’s being paid $15.57 an hour. Yet like so many others, she works a second job to make ends meet for her and her kids. And many in the field, as is widely true everywhere, must settle for part-time work.

Two years ago the Occupy movement shocked the world by focussing on the bloated privileges of the 1 per cent. The 1 per cent were completely unfazed, Occupy largely faded away. Its great tactical failure was the absence of specific realistic demands. The minimum wage movement, on the other hand, has very precise, eminently reasonable demands and a powerful, irresistible story to tell.

Well, irresistible to some. Giant corporations, who actually employ most of the working poor and could easily absorb the cost, oppose even a trivial rise in the minimum wage, while governments feel little serious pressure to raise the levels. So corporate execs are able to keep prices down, wages down even more, and their own compensation up, up, up. Inequality wins again.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...