Thursday, March 08, 2007

Questions for Minimum Wage Forum

Last night I attended a public meeting that was part of the campaign for a $10 minimum wage in Ontario. While I think that raising the minimum wage is a very positive thing, I think there are aspects of this specific campaign that deserve some deeper reflection from those of us who approach social and political issues from the left but in a way not tied to the fortunes of a specific political party.

The event was held at a hotel in downtown Sudbury. While this may not have been the most accessible venue for people living on low incomes, I suppose it could have been worse -- in a small, poor city like Sudbury the phrase "downtown hotel" does not have any connotations even approaching the kind of swank and grandeur that it might invoke if you are talking about Toronto or New York. There had been a similar event earlier in the day held at Laurentian University. There was a small media presence at the evening event but, I'm told, a much larger one in the afternoon.

The event was organized by the main forces behind the campaign, which are the labour movement and the Ontario New Democratic Party (who are, for the benefit of non-Canadian readers, our social democrats). In a way, even though their politics are not exactly mine, it was nice to see the social democratic left actually doing something, because as far as I have been able to tell they have done very little beyond direct participation in election campaigns in the year and a half or so that I've lived here. To give a sense of who was there, according to my (always imperfect) casual observation: everyone was white, the gender profile seemed evenly distributed, the median age was probably a good few years older than me but there were some young people as well, and there was a mix of middle-class and working-class people. From what people said and from the comments of the two people I was with who have been politically active in Sudbury much longer than I, the bulk of those in attendance had some sort of connection to the labour movement, the NDP, or both.

The event was chaired by the president of the Sudbury NDP. The panel featured Cheri DiNovo, a former United Church minister and NDP MPP who last fall won a by-election in Toronto in a riding that voted quite solidly Liberal in the previous general election. It is her private member's bill in the provincial legislature that is the focus of this campaign and she has been personally spearheading it. Also on the panel were the executive directors of two local social service agencies that deal with people in poverty, a university student who is also a part-time low-wage worker (and an organizer with the New Democratic Youth), and Gerry McIntaggart, a former city councillor and the newly nominated NDP candidate in the Sudbury riding for the next federal election.

To get a sense of the campaign (or to send an email to your MPP and the premier in support of it), click here. They also have some background material. The need experienced by people who depend on minimum wage jobs can be disputed only if you are willfully blind or deliberately cruel. The arguments that such an increase would ultimately hurt the people that it intends to help seem to be scare mongering in this instance, not to mention morally bankrupt in the general case (see below). Corporate profits are the highest proportion of Canadian GDP in history and most low-wage workers are employed by big box stores, chains, and temp agencies, all of whom can afford it. The president of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, which represents many, many thousand street-level small businesses in the City of Toronto, apparently has endorsed the call for a raise to $10, as has the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily newspaper.

But I have three reservations about the campaign. All three, I realized after I started to try and articulate them, have to do with the general problem of how to fit immediate, winnable demands into a larger analysis and framework for action.

No. 1

This one did not occur to me until this morning; it was not on my mind and did not shape my actions at the meeting last night.

How can and should we reconcile immediate, social democratic demands of this sort, which do respond to real human need and so do have importance, with the fact that the resources that we are using to meet this need have their basis in theft of land and natural resources from indigenous people? I have no immediate answer to that because, like I said, it only just occurred to me. But I think it is crucial that we answer it because there is far too long a history in this country (and other settler states) of the mainstream white-dominated left being mainly concerned with how equitable the distribution of stolen goods is among the settlers rather than the fact the they were stolen, and colonialism continues unabated. In thinking how this might have been raised in a context like last night's meeting, any approach I can think of would have resulted either in heartfelt applause accompanied by zero critical reflection and forgetting the issue three seconds later, or in people taking offense and rolling their eyes at the supposedly off-topic, unrealistic radical in the corner. My initial sense of how to deal with this is that it is a mistake to approach it at the level of a single campaign rather than settlers who seek to be allies of indigenous peoples taking a step back and challenging other settler political spaces to take up the issue in a more general way. That's still full of vague, though.

No. 2

I raised this issue when I posted about the minimum wage dispute before. It did not really enter my thoughts last night, but I still think it is important.

We -- meaning those of us who are concerned about creating a world that actually meets people's needs -- need to be aware that even though this particular effort to redistribute resources a little more equitably will not have the disastrous consequences that its opponents predict, sooner or later they will be able to legimiately answer our attempts to address human need by saying, "It will hurt the economy, and that will hurt ordinary people." Of course, that is just a mystifying way of talking about class struggle, and what it means is that if you create the threat of real social justice past a certain threshold, then capital will push back by disinvesting. And perhaps by encouraging its minions to engage in state repression or even a coup, depending on the specific circumstances. Refusing to seriously address the threats implicit in the neutral-sounding observation that a given social justice initiative will "hurt the economy" is accepting that the need that surrounds us does not really need to be met. So what are we going to do?

No. 3

This one is the most directly related to last night's meeting.

What sense does it make to talk about raising the minimum wage while not talking about raising social assistance rates? There is no shortage of data, qualitative and quantitative, that shows how disgustingly inadequate social assistance rates in Ontario are. It would take an increase of around 40% to bring them up to the level they were at in 1995, and people were talking about and organizing around their inadequacy even then.

Interestingly, DiNovo addressed this issue in the first couple of minutes of her first opportunity to speak. On the one hand, she argued political realism in a blunter fashion than I expected to hear. She talked about another NDP politician, Tony Martin, who ran in a very poor riding on a campaign focused around raising social assistance rates, and he lost. She said, "You would lose on that basis today." And she's right, I think. For all the reports and media releases and anguished testimonials over the last decade, most of middle-class Onario simply doesn't care how awful social assistance is, with a mixture of ignorance, willful blindness, and stereotype as justification.

A big part of DiNovo's justification for focusing on minimum wage but staying away from social assistance issues is that the former is winnable and the latter is not -- the former plays well in the media and is getting a solid positive response while the latter is still poison. I would qualify that division of the two into "winnable" and "not-winnable" by making some of her assumed context visible: that distinction applies to the kind of campaign she is willing and capable of engaging in, as a social democratic MPP. But in that context, she's not wrong. She was a bit less forthright, though others in the audience who spoke were a bit more clear, that this issue is a winner for the NDP -- if her bill passes, it's a triumph for a small opposition party, and even if it doesn't, it's a great way to split left-liberal voters from the Liberals in the upcoming general election. I can't say I care much about this, but again I think it is an accurate assessment.

She did not stop at political realism in justifying the decision to be deliberately silent on social assistance issues while advocating for a jump in the minimum wage, however. An important rhetorical weapon in the NDP arsenal in this campaign is moralistic invokations of justice. When she pointed to 14% of GDP going to profits and the average top-level CEO receiving $9 million a year, while people are struggling to get by on minimum wage, she described it as "simply ethically wrong, simply morally wrong". I agree, and have no problem with moralism of that sort. But it obviously means that the realpolitik of the "winnable"/"not winnable" distinction has to be supplemented, lest the speaker appear inconsistent.

The supplementation consisted of reasons why this campaign will utlimately help social assistance recipients as well. From a couple of audience members, though not directly from DiNovo, was the very simplistic notion that this will help the NDP elect more members and the NDP cares about social assistance rates and therefore this issue will help people on social assistance. At least as it stands, this argument does not hold -- if raising the rates is a vote loser, why would the NDP be more likely to embrace it later than now even if they had more MPPs? It also overlooks the fact that though the worst changes in social assistance happened under the post-1995 Conservatives, shifts in negative directions actually began to happen near the end of the mandate of the previous government, which was an NDP government. This was in response to the rising winds of neoliberalism in Canada, and if anything these winds are stronger today than they were then.

DiNovo's answer went a little farther. She argued right at the start of her speech that the positive coverage and positive public response the minimum wage issue was receiving was putting poverty into the public consciousness, and this greater visibility for poverty issues would ultimately help those on social assistance. She said, "It is the wedge issue that will get poverty on the front pages of all our newspapers soon." That, in turn, would end up benefiting social assistance recipients, presumably because it would change the current reality of raising the rates being a vote loser.

During the Q&A session I questioned this logic. I prefaced it all nicely with support for the goal of raising the minimum wage and for the idea of available resources actually meeting human needs. I also was not the first to raise issues related to social assistance, as a couple of the more labour/NDP-y types in the audience had already done so, albeit in a slightly different way than me. I pointed out the long history of dividing people living in poverty into "worthy" and "unworthy", "deserving" and "undeserving". I argued, not quite this directly, that this campaign was receiving positive feedback because it was targeted towards helping the "worthy" and "deserving." In a sense, by doing so while remaining silent about social assistance, not only is it leaving out those in greatest need (a serious moral problem) it is potentially strengthening in the public mind the distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" (a serious political problem). The very division between "winnable" and "not winnable" that DiNovo raised is very directly based on the perception of people as being "deserving" and "undeserving", and itis not at all clear how a generalized media focus on poverty does anything to undermine that. Given that public (and, more importantly, media) attention can shift in very fickle ways, I think it is more likely that a year from now, even if this campaign succeeds, attempts to broach the social assistance issue will be met by disinterest (if not outright hostility) from editors, and lots of middle-class Ontarians will say, "Didn't we just do something for poor people not long ago? Why don't they all get jobs, the lazy bums?" This risk of reinforcing stigma by focusing one's remedies on the portion of people living in poverty who are already considered "deserving" and "worthy" was nicely illustrated by McIntaggart, who made repeated disgusting associations in his remarks between people living in poverty, particularly those living in deep poverty, and things like drug addiction and street crime. It was really offensive. (I mean, seriously...this guy has been an NDP politician for 15 years or more...don't they have "don't say dumb and offensive stuff" training sessions that they send their people to?)

My question met with quite a positive response from the audience. Several subsequent questioners made reference to it, and it was addressed by DiNovo and one of the panelists from an agency. I kind of made a sideways reference to McIntaggart's offensive remarks, and I'm not sure how many people understood what I said as doing that, but the main point was my skepticism that even down the road this campaign would have any benefits for people on assistance. The mantras of more NDP MPPs and greater public visibility for poverty issues in general were repeated, and my query about reinforcing the "worthy"/"unworthy" divide and not doing anything to change the vote losing character of issues pertaining to the "undeserving" section of people living in poverty stayed unaddressed.


eugene plawiuk said...

I think the minimum wage debate is the parliamentary political reaction to diffuse a more serious debate around the need for a social wage, thus the confrontation between precarious workers and the 'unemployed' ie. housewives. Which is why I have always tried to go beyond just increasing the minimum wage to talk about the need for a social wage which would include benefits paid for by the employer.

Scott said...

Hi Eugene! might be right. Certainly I agree that a narrow debate on minimum wage can be quite divisive. On the other hand, I'm not sure it is really a necessary device to forestall the "more serious debate around the need for a social wage" at this particular moment. I mean, is such a generalized debate in any danger of occurring right now? In the context of the other talons of neoliberalism (and the ubiquitous, lifelong media messaging that surrounds us) still functioning so effectively to convince that "there is no alternative", I'm not so sure...but it is certainly a debate I would like to see!