2007 January Speaking Notes Public Interest Alberta Living Wage Media Conference

Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, January 10, 2007

There's no denying that times are good in Alberta. Unemployment is low, profits are high - and many Albertans are enjoying wages and opportunities that people living in other provinces can only dream about. This is the story we read about on the business pages. It's the story our politicians talk about and it's the story the public is encouraged to focus on. But there's another story in Alberta. In fact, there's a whole other Alberta. There's a whole population of Albertans for whom the boom is little more than a distant echo. That's why we at the Alberta Federation of Labour have participated in the preparation of this report. We think it's long past time that our leaders acknowledge the fact that not everyone is sharing in the so-called Alberta Advantage. The truth may not be comfortable for the comfortable to look at - and it may not jibe with the government's preferred script - but it's a truth that needs to be brought out from the shadows. The truth, as this report shows, is that not all boats are rising. The truth is that, even in here in wealthy Alberta, thousands of Albertans go to work every, they work hard - and yet they still can't make ends meet. The truth is that a quarter of working Albertans make less than $12 an hour and that the minimum wage is a cruel joke. The truth is also that wage increases for most Albertans are not keeping pace with the increase in costs for things like transportation, gas, home heating, food, child care and, especially, housing. For me, what is perhaps most troubling is that these issues don't even seem to be on the provincial government's radar screen.

You probably all remember that just before Christmas, our new Premier gave letters to each of his new cabinet ministers outlining his expectations and setting out his priorities for each ministry. The letter to Employment, Immigration and Industry Minister Iris Evan talked about the labour shortage, it talked about training - but it didn't talk about poverty and it didn't talk about struggling families. There's an old saying that the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem. Well, what we seem to have here is a government in denial. Some people may say: what can government do about these kinds of problems? They might say "the market will decide" or that we can never truly eliminate poverty. But what we're saying today is that the government, through its low minimum wage and patch-work approach to social policy - has helped create this problem. And they need to be part of the solution. The good news is that our governments have their hands on policy levers that can help. The provincial government could and should increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation. They could and should develop and fund a real child care program. And finally they, along with municipal governments, could and should adopt living wage policies for their employees and all their contracts. In the end, government is about choices. And when it comes to social policy, governments have a choice to take the high road or low road. The low road says let the market decide and let workers fend for themselves. The high road says all society benefits when families are given a hand up and when we as a society say we will not condemn any of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and despair. Living Wage policies, like the ones outlined in this report, are concrete ways we can make the goal of reducing and eliminating poverty a reality.

But the first step is for all of us to convince our leaders and our governments that's it's time to take the off the rose coloured glasses. This report is the first stage in what will be an on-going campaign to do just that.

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