What do we do when we Fight for $15

On this episode, three guests provide some perspective on the politics and the economics of the Fight for $15. First, I speak with Jonathan Rosenblum, campaign director at the first Fight for $15 at SeaTac Airport, just outside Seattle, Washington. Workers there won an immediate raise to $15 via a municipal ordinance in 2015. Jon is also an author and has recently published Beyond 15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement. Next, I move closer to home and talk to Sheila Block, economist at the Ontario office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Sheila lays out the context for the $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario, one of changing work and a weaker labour movement. Rounding out the show, economics writer and researcher Nathan Tankus returns to the podcast to discuss the economic arguments in favour of raising the minimum wage. We go beyond the narrow issue of  minimum wages to broader challenges to “textbook economics.”

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Canadian economists support $15, media round-up

53 Canadian economists, myself among them, have signed an open letter in support of the $15 per hour minimum wage. The letter follows on the immense bottom-up campaign in Ontario led by the Fight for $15 and Fairness, which has successfully pressured the provincial government to announce a move to $15 by 2019. It should also be a boost to movements in other provinces fighting for the same.

Here’s a key excerpt from the letter which outlines the now well-established economic case for $15:

But low wages are also bad for the economy. There are good economic reasons to raise the incomes of low-wage workers. Aggregate demand needs a boost. While Canada escaped the harshest impacts of the 2007-08 financial crisis, our country has also seen a slowdown in growth. We risk further stagnation without reinvigorated economic motors. As those with lower incomes spend more of what they earn than do those with higher incomes, raising the minimum wage could play a role in economic revival, improving macroeconomic conditions.

For years, we have heard that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs, raise prices and cause businesses to flee Ontario. This is fear-mongering that is out of line with the latest economic research. Using improved techniques that carefully isolate the effects of minimum wage increases from the remaining noise in economic data, the weight of evidence from the United States points to job loss effects that are statistically indistinguishable from zero. The few very recent studies from Canada that have used these new economic methods agree, finding job loss effects for teenagers smaller by half than those of earlier studies and no effect for workers over 25.

There are many possible reasons for minimum wage increases to lead to little or no job loss. Studies have found lower turnover, more on-the-job training, greater wage compression (smaller differences between higher- and lower-paid workers) and higher productivity after minimum wage increases. In short, raising the minimum wage makes for better, more productive workplaces.

The business lobby has also suggested that any minimum wage increases will simply be passed on as higher prices. First, the above-mentioned improvements will offset some part of the higher labour costs to business. Second, there is no instantaneous, automatic mechanism between higher labour costs and higher prices. Some of the costs not absorbed by increased efficiency may go to price increases, but these are likely to be small and, for low-wage workers, offset by higher incomes coming from rising wages. Furthermore, if we remember that over 1 in 4 workers in Ontario makes under $15 per hour, we should not treat slightly higher inflation as the main criterion of successful policy; instead we should focus on the substantial benefit to low-wage workers, their families and the economy as a whole.

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The $15 minimum wage is good: busting business lobby myths

With the Ontario government seriously considering raising the minimum wage thanks to the tireless organizing efforts of the $15 and Fairness campaign, the labour movement and thousands of supporters, the business lobby is out fear-mongering in force. Here is a tool for the rest of us to fight back. It’s a collection of 5 myths and facts about raising the minimum wage: clear arguments for why $15 an hour is right for Ontario workers and the Ontario economy. This is an edited version of a section prepared for the Rank and File $15 and Fairness Now! An Organizer’s Handbook for Building a Movement.

MYTH #1: Raising the minimum wage will cost low-wage workers their jobs.

FACT: There is resounding evidence that raising the minimum wage is not a job-killer. Economists doing cutting-edge studies have found that the typical minimum wage increase does not cause overall job loss. “Job loss is more of a threat than a theory.” For instance, the threat that robots will take our jobs has been made for over 200 years and full-time work is still 40 hours a week or more! The argument that jobs will be shipped offshore fails similarly. As much as business tries, it’s not yet possible to move a barista job halfway around the world. There are still so many jobs that require human labour.

A $15 minimum wage would pump billions of dollars into the pockets of low-wage workers and thus the Ontario economy. Jobs would be created as a result of the new economic activity, compensating for losses incurred by businesses that can only function on poverty wages. As the minimum wage goes up, workers become more valuable to businesses and jobs generally get better. Economists have found that when the minimum wage rises workers get more training and there is less turnover. Businesses put more energy into raising efficiency rather than keeping tabs on workers in poverty. And wages tend to become more equal: wages for managers and other high-paid workers don’t go up as much and businesses spend proportionately more on the lowest-paid.

Most importantly, potential job losses are not the only thing we should care about when the minimum wage goes up. Less poverty, better jobs, higher incomes for the lowest-paid — all of these would far outweigh the impact of a minimal job loss even if it was to happen.

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Don’t mourn, organize! Sarah Jaffe on organizing before and after Trump

You could almost hear the whole world hold its breath as the night of November 8th dragged on and Donald Trump’s march towards the presidency became clearer. While it may be trite, Joe Hill’s famous dictum “Don’t mourn; organize!” rings true today. My guest, journalist and author Sarah Jaffe, is very well placed to help us start thinking about how to do this in the age of Trump.

Her book Necessary Trouble, released just a few months ago, catalogues in great journalistic detail the post-crisis rise of oppositional movements in the US from Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for 15 to Black Lives Matter. The necessary trouble she writes about just took on a new urgency. Sarah gives her account of the present and possible future for nascent left movements and organizations in the US.

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Having the hard conversations: Interview with Jane McAlevey

My interview with Jane McAlevey has been published at Jacobin. The podcast is available here. Due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life (moving and a new job), there was no podcast last week and this will have to do in lieu. Normal podcasting resumes next week!

Michal Rozworski: You’ve argued that organized labor today doesn’t face an external crisis of circumstances, but a crisis of strategy. Things are bad, but for instance if we look back at the ’30s or earlier, working and living conditions weren’t rosy but we still saw huge mobilizations and stronger movement than we have today. If we have a crisis of strategy, what are we missing? What strategies will work today?

Jane McAlevey: It’s an important question, and I should clarify a little bit. There are external factors; I don’t want to dismiss that. The changing nature of capitalism has made things very difficult, so have trade agreements and globalization. As a self-criticism, I think I sometimes come off completely dismissive of external conditions. I mean to put an emphasis on what we control.

I’m fine to talk about globalization till the cows come home. We know it’s there; we know it’s a problem. The question is, what are we doing about it?

I want to focus on a debate that we can actually change. If we do change our strategy, I think we can win again. The reason I pound so much on internal movement failure is because it’s in the movement’s control. We’re not going to change the direction of global trade tomorrow. What we can do tomorrow is sit up as a movement and decide we’ve got the wrong strategies.

There has been this recognition in the last twenty years or so, in the USA in particular, that we have a crisis. The conditions are very difficult, the employer offensive is very difficult. The problem is that the way the US labor movement took the decision to look for additional leverage was to walk away from workers in the workplace and develop these very sophisticated, heavily staffed campaigns — staffed by, no offense, very educated white men who were given written tests in the application process on reading financial spreadsheets. And this was to hire people to think strategically in the labor movement. To me, this summed it all up. The question wasn’t: do you know how to talk to a worker?

The development of the corporate campaign has been a colossal disaster. It’s an evolution in some ways of taking agency away from workers at every level inside the labor movement. The key strategic pivot we have to make is having a ton of faith in the capacities of ordinary rank-and-file workers and in the ordinary intelligence of workers. We have to prioritize our strategy on teaching, skilling up, and training tens of thousands of workers how to fight.

Organizing isn’t rocket science, but it is a serious skill and a craft. We have to build an army of people in the field who can actually contend with capital on the local level. Not talking to workers and having a strategy that fundamentally avoided workers for several decades is what we need to change and what we can change. (more…)

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The case for a $15 minimum wage the NDP should make

Of all of the NDP’s campaign promises so far, one of the simplest has gotten the most press: the $15 minimum wage for workers in federally regulated sectors. This campaign plank should be an easy sell for the NDP, yet Conservative and Liberal attacks have managed to undermine it. The way it’s been presented has left it open to attack, but this needn’t be so. (more…)

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Minimum wage workers not the only ones getting screwed

I have a populist piece in The Tyee this morning on how last week’s paltry $0.20 minimum wage increase in British Columbia actually reflects stagnant wages across the economy and why the Fight for 15 is everyone’s fight. Here it is in full.

Last week, the B.C. government reacted to the increasing push for a higher minimum wage… by giving minimum wage workers a 20 cent raise. Even Business in Vancouver magazine quoted UBC labour economist David Green calling the new higher wage “laughably low.” What perhaps hasn’t received enough attention is that the two-dime bump in the minimum wage — the first in three years — is not that far out of line with stagnant wages across the economy. For instance, the average wage in British Columbia grew by 14 cents in 2014! While 20 cents over three years doesn’t even allow minimum wage earners to account for inflation, the fact is most of us have been barely keeping up with price increases. Real wages, those adjusted for inflation, have been mostly stagnant.

While Canada-wide statistics paint a picture of modest wage growth since the end of the last recession in June 2009, much of this growth is due to the three oil boom provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, for the more than 80 per cent of workers outside the oil boom provinces, average real wages have grown just two per cent since that period. Median wages, which are not dragged upwards by the disproportionately large increases in wages for the wealthy, have seen just 0.4 per cent growth outside the oil provinces. This is stagnation loud and clear (see this earlier post for a closer look at the numbers). (more…)

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