The new villain? Workers fighting for better wages. Don’t fall for it

Posted on October 5, 2022 in Debates

Source: — Authors: – Business/Opinion
Oct. 5, 2022.   By Armine Yalnizyan, Contributing Columnist

Greedy. Lazy. Costing us all. Expect anti-worker rhetoric to grow as we look for someone to blame for the pickle we are in, Armine Yalnizyan writes.

The reaction was swift, brutal — and entirely predictable. When news broke that some federal public sector workers started collective bargaining negotiations asking for a 33 per cent wage increase (over three years), commentary was as unsympathetic as you might expect.

They’re lazy. They’re greedy. They’re going to cost us all.

This is an important chapter in the history of workers’ struggles for decent work, a moment of fighting not only inflation but long-standing systemic inequalities.

It has the potential to pit unionized worker against non-unionized worker, and private sector worker against public sector worker. Or it has the potential to pave the path toward decent work, through fairness and equity.

This example of collective bargaining has echoes of it all. Let’s dive in.

The Public Service Alliance represents 230,000 federal public sector workers. About 35,000 people work in towns across Canada for the Canada Revenue Agency, as call centre employees and workers who process tax returns. They are also the people who pivoted, virtually overnight, to roll out historic pandemic relief, processing the more than 27 million CERB applications that kept Canadians afloat.

A subgroup of these workers has fallen behind their colleagues doing the same work elsewhere in the public service. Their union representatives are making two reasonable but unrelated asks of the federal government: to catch up with inflation over the next three years, and to achieve wage parity for those earning less than other federal employees doing the same jobs.

The entry-level wage for these workers is roughly $20 an hour, or $41,500 a year, before taxes. Most of these people (59 per cent) are women and about a third are people of colour.

Are they greedy to not want to lose what little purchasing power they have, or earn equal pay for work done by others doing the same job for the same employer? Is the union greedy to ask for parity?

The federal government is Canada’s biggest employer and sets a standard for us all. As the employer of the federal government, through our votes and taxes, we should expect it to provide decent work.

That means decent wages, so workers aren’t left in poverty even when working full-time for the whole year; good, publicly funded services like health care, dental care, pharmacare, child care and transit, so everyone — including employers — can count on everyone functioning at their best; and voice in the workplace, because we all need input and at least some control in how we spend the majority of our waking lives, making the economy work.

Things quickly get emotional when we talk about public sector workers precisely because we fund these wage increases, through personal and corporate taxes.

But if we don’t support basic concepts like equal pay for work of equal value, or the idea that workers shouldn’t be the only group to lose economic ground in periods of inflation, then we are guaranteeing that workers with the least bargaining power will fall behind, even if they are “essential.”

That’s because most improvements in wages and working conditions are levered through unions and social movements, both large groups of people organized to ask for more. (Business does the same thing, behind closed doors. Their strength isn’t in numbers, but in dollars.)

If unions can’t offset economic loss at the bargaining table, there’s almost no chance low-wage workers will improve their economic fortunes on their own. And there’s a lot of them.

Figures pulled together by the Labour Market Information Council show 540,000 Ontarians worked for $15 an hour or less in August, and 1.9 million worked for $20 an hour or less. (Thanks to Brittany Feor and Tony Bolen of the council for these stats.) Low-wage workers are a surprisingly large share of Ontario’s 7.75 million workers.

This past weekend Ontario’s “Working for Workers” government raised the minimum wage by 50 cents, to $15.50 an hour (up 3.3 per cent). A worker lucky enough to find a full-time job at minimum wage will now be making $32,240. After federal and provincial taxes, they’ll have $26,675. In Toronto, the average vacant one-bedroom apartment is over $2,000, or more than $24,000 a year. The average single person’s food budget is roughly $3,500 a year. A year’s worth of Presto monthly passes is $1,716.

You can’t make ends meet on a minimum-wage job, even with a full-time, full-year job.

Minimum wage workers need more. So do those just above the minimum wage. And many of these people are doing the jobs we only recently called “essential” — grocery store clerks, personal care workers and early childhood educators.

Greedy? Lazy? Costing us all?

Expect anti-worker rhetoric to grow over the coming months as we look for someone to blame for the pickle we are in.

It started with the pandemic. Then it was inflation. Some are now pinning it on governments, others on corporations.

As multi-year collective bargaining agreements end, private and public sector unions alike will be negotiating to catch up with both inflation and systemic inequities. Expect the problem to be framed in the form of a new villain: greedy workers, and unions in particular.

Don’t fall for it.

Wages and salaries are actually a shrinking share of the economy, despite unemployment rates at half-century lows. Corporate profits, meanwhile, are at near-record highs, approaching levels seen in the run-up to the 2008 global financial crisis. Prices could rise as a result of higher wages, yes, but fighting for fairer wages ultimately lifts everyone up, as history has proven.

We are living in an era of epic, demographically driven labour shortage. This is going to last for at least one, maybe two decades. Workers will have more bargaining power than they have had in half a century. They’ll be asking for more.

That’s not a problem or inconvenience to be quelled. It’s a potential breakthrough. Together, we could make every job a good job, by design.

For the first time in my lifetime, I can actually see it happening.

And yet another path also beckons.

Workers who ask for more will always be told it’s not a good time to ask for more. Tell me: when is it a good time to ask for more?

We’re not play-acting a chapter from Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” But dark drama time it is.

These days it’s a tall order to ask the human spirit to work together for better. There’s a lot of money invested in convincing you that a gain for me is a loss for you.

Here’s our choice: Every job a good job, or Worker vs. Worker. That chapter is not yet written. It’s ours to write.

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