A Wager on Wages
Since becoming the president of an association that lobbies for the interests of a segment of the working class, I have taken a keener notice of events that have an impact on workers in Alberta. One development that seems to have attracted the most attention, and the most controversy, is the change to the minimum wage on October first to fifteen dollars an hour province-wide.
On June 26 of this year, General Electric, the last original component of the Dow Jones was removed from the index and replaced with Walgreens, a retail giant. Just as big box stores seem to pop up and dominate the physical landscape, so too do they show their presence on the stock market. Walgreens has set up shop on the Dow alongside Walmart, Home Depot, and McDonald's, a setting familiar to any suburban shopper. What isn’t seen is the once proud American auto industry; the last car maker was delisted in 2009. Most oil companies have vanished as well with only the Exxon listed after the super merger with Mobil Oil. The other heavy industries are gone too, from Bethlehem Steel to Amalgamated Rubber, the 30 biggest publicly traded companies in America are completely different than those of the recent past.
Massive retail has also become the largest employer in America by far. In a country where once the largest employer was GM with highly paid union jobs and retirement and benefit plans, the largest employers now are Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, and Home Depot whose employees can expect to take home between 20-30,000 a year on average. Despite the differential in pay scales, the workers in the past possessed fewer marketable skills and had less education than those of today. They did, however, benefit from living in a different era, a time where the value of labour was appreciated, and having a job, any job, was worthy of a respectable wage.
Rewind a little further back and this was not always the case. Before the labour movement in the industrialized world, there was no middle class, only the elite and the working poor. For those toiling in the coal mines or the cotton fields, the elite did not seem to think they deserved more than sustenance wages. After all, they had their lot in life, and a great deal of that was due to the decisions they made, their capabilities, and the class they were born into. They did not do anything to earn a higher standing in society.
Today, the coal miners and quarrymen do not make up the labour market. The labourers of yesteryear are the baristas and shelf stockers of today, and the minimum wage battle is the labour movement of the 21st century. What hasn’t changed is the discourse. Retail, minimum wage employees are said to not be deserving of a higher wage, their labour is diminished as that of little importance, done by people who earned their lot in life through their own choices and circumstances. What people fail to realize is that retail work has to be done, people need work, and they will take the jobs that are available. They are every bit as deserving of a living wage as anyone else who works full time at a job that brings prosperity to their employers (largest publicly traded companies in the USA, remember?)
In this economy, we all contribute, and we should all reap the benefits. The days where huge segments of the population were made up of working poor made up a big part of history and without strong protections for the labourers of the biggest component of the workforce, we risk seeing those days again. For this reason, I give my full support to the fight for fifteen movements across Canada and the USA.
*The preceding article is purely my opinion as an individual. It should not be construed as the policy of WAMEA or any of its directors