At a time when governments are cutting social programs and spending trillions of dollars of taxpayer’s money on bailing out their big businesses friends, they continue to tell us that paying workers a decent living wage is unreasonable. It is obvious that no one in Canada can reasonably be expected to support themselves on $8 an hour, and also just as obvious that the demand for a dignified wage for all workers is more important now than ever.
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History of Struggle
Like all advancements for workers, the existence of minimum wage was not something handed down benevolently from above by governments. The first minimum wages internationally were won in New Zealand and Australia in the 1890’s The first minimum wages in Canada were won in BC and Manitoba in 1918, within the context of the early 1900’s – a period of huge escalations in labour activity as workers demanded universal 8 hours days, union recognition and better wages.
BC was no exception, with the creation of the BC Federation of Labour (BCFED) in 1910, which by 1917 had gained enough support to run candidates in the Federal Elections. The struggle for a minimum wage was led by women, who faced the most savage conditions in unregulated industries. Women workers were also in a new position to demand their rights, as many were recruited to work in “non traditional” industrial and agricultural jobs during World War I. Labour organizer Helena Guteridge organized the Women's Employment League and later the Minimum Wage League in a growing effort by women workers to demand fair wages for their work. Joined by other organized labour organizations including the BCFED, the Minimum Wage League was able to demand, and win, the minimum wage for women on April 23, 1918. In 1925, it was legislated for men as well.
It did not end there, as the fight between workers and their employers about the level of minimum wage still raged on along with other labour issues. July 1918 saw Canada’s first General Strike in Vancouver in response to the murder of labour and anti-war activist Ginger Goodwin. Between 1919 and 1920 there was over 1500 strikes in Canada, including the Winnipeg General Strike which involved over 25,000 workers. In this case, as in most, the government and its business allies called in the police, the army, and paid private armed militias to violently suppress the workers. A 1919 Vancouver strike in sympathy with Winnipeg would be the longest General Strike in Canadian history.
Same Fight Today
While this history may be little known today, the interests have remained the same. Employers have continued to try and squeeze the most for the least from workers, while workers have needed to continue to organize for their rights. The current fight against the criminally low $8 minimum wage is one of the most important.
BC has the lowest minimum wage in Canada, and according to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), also has the highest overall rate of poverty (21 percent), child poverty (24 percent) and working poor. Full-time earnings for minimum wage workers in BC amount to only $16,640 a year, more than $5000 below the Statistics Canada poverty line for an individual living in a large urban centre in 2007.
Women continue to be the most exploited section of workers, as women constitute over two thirds of minimum wage earners in Canada. Women also earn an average of 62.8 percent of men’s income ($23,500 versus $37,400 in 2003).
In contrast, Premier Gordon Campbell and the Ministers’s in the BC Legislature voted themselves a 29-per-cent increase in the basic MLA's salary - to $98,000 in 2007. The Premier's salary was raised 54%, from $121,100 to $186,200. Then they tell us there is no money for poor and working people in BC?
Based on different calculations and concessions, different progressive organizations have called for different minimum wages. $10 an hour, $12 an hour, $15 and hour, and many others have all been proposed.
The most credible proposal of these has come from the CCPA, which in 2008 released a report which calculated a minimum living wage of $16.74 an hour in Metro Vancouver, “Based on the principle that full-time work should provide families with a basic level of economic security, not keep them in poverty. The amount needed for a family of four with two parents working full-time to pay for necessities, support the healthy development of their children, escape financial stress and participate in their communities.”
They call their budget for different aspects covered on the living wage as “bare bones,” and are clear that it does not include:
- Savings for children’s future education
- Savings for retirement
- Owning a home
- Credit card, loan, or other debt/interest payments
- Anything beyond minimal recreation, entertainment, or holiday costs
- Costs of caring for a disabled, seriously ill, or elderly family member
- Much of a cushion for emergencies or tough times
Today’s BCFED President Jim Sinclair agrees that it would take almost $17 an hour for a worker in BC to live comfortably. If this is his standard, why should we call for anything less for any worker in BC? While younger workers might not be in a position to support families, every worker has a right to a dignified wage, especially when lower wage work is often accompanied by the worst working conditions. Fire This Time supports a $17 an hour minimum dignified wage for all workers, adjusted every year based on cost of living increases.
A Time to Rise
We have been told when times are relatively good economically that workers should not “rock the boat” by demanding higher wages. Now that big businesses have thrown us into the midst of a huge recession, we are told that times are too economically difficult to demand better wages, and to be happy even to be employed.
We must ask, whose fault is the current economic crisis? How is it reasonable to pay trillions of dollars in bailouts and concessions to corporations, yet unreasonable for the workers whose taxes paid the bailouts and whose work sustains the economies, to receive a dignified wage?
Quite simply, if they tell us that wages which can provide the human rights of food, housing, healthcare, and education are impossible under their obviously failing economic order, why should we try and accommodate it? Especially when those who make the most demand from us the least. A $17 an hour dignified wage is not only reasonable, but also an important demand for all poor and working people as part of fighting back against the BC Liberal government and towards ensuring we are all able to live with dignity and security.
$17 an hour DIGNIFIED Wage Now!