On September 30th United Way Simcoe Muskoka, the Poverty Reduction Task Group, and the OLWN’s Anne Coleman presented on the living wage to Barrie City Council. Watch the presentation here, which begins at the 40-minute mark.
It is the latest in a steady stream of council appearances my colleague Anne has been making, racking up the travel kilometres from Hamilton to Kingston to Port Colborne and now Barrie.
As communications coordinator, it’s my job to help prepare for, catalog, and report on how these things go. Sometimes I’ll supply slides or other supporting materials. Of course there are often questions from the council members after such presentations.
The councillors in Barrie had several succinct exchanges with the presenters, and they seemed to have a genuine interest in what the living wage was and how it might impact the city they represent. It made me reflect on the other times the living wage has gone before a council in Ontario.
Turns out I’ve begun to pick out a pattern. When a question begins with “I think this is a great idea, but…” it usually means an objection about the cost is coming. It can be frustrating to watch. Yet there’s also something else in that question at times—a deeply held and human acknowledgement that this municipality should pay at least a living wage, but it just can’t right now.
Municipalities, just like all corporations large and small, can, and do routinely find ways to make difficult things happen. If it should happen at one point in the future then let now be that future, or a least the first step along that path. With a phased implementation, councils can create a timeline for certification, where budget for the raises in pay can be planed for in advance.
Another objection pattern singles out the part-time, casual, student, and contract workers. Becoming a living wage employer at the Champion level means all these workers are paid at least a living wage. This objection revolves around a mythical perception about who is the average minimum wage worker; that they are a student just entering the workforce, or a pensioner just filling their days with meaning, and do not need a living wage.
While it’s true that these groups do not make up the majority of low-wage workers, that’s not the point.
If you need the work done, then pay at least a living wage for it, regardless of the burden that particular worker faces. Besides, the idea of a debt-free student or a senior with no bills to pay has no connection to reality.
Leadership on local solutions to working poverty must come from cities and towns where we live. These are our closest levels of government, and we interact with them every single day. And lately, it seems like there’s an appetite in Ontario's small to medium-sized municipalities to lead the way.
These municipalities are large anchor institutions in our communities, and we need them be model employers as an example for others. What they do and how they value work is important because it is done in our name.
But the power of a municipal living wage employer goes beyond the symbolic in several ways.
Municipalities employ many casual, student, and contract workers, and when their employer reaches the Champion level—as per the phased implementation agreement—they now see a raise in pay. And not just once, but every time the regional living wage rate is updated.
Then there is the large purchasing power of these employers.
Imagine a future where public sector institutions like municipalities, schools, and hospitals are able to have procurement policies that favour living wage providers? Imagine the impact that could have for local economies? Working poverty could begin to be legislated right out of town. That's where we want the living wage movement in Ontario to be in the future.