Beware of low-wage agenda

This Labour Day, working Albertans have a lot to be thankful for. We have the highest wages, the best job prospects and the highest standard of living in Canada.

Life here in the land of oil is pretty good.

But before we get too comfortable, it's important to recognize that not everyone is pleased with how well working people are doing.

In fact, recently disclosed documents show that some of our country's most influential chief executives are asking the federal Conservative government to help them suppress wages.

This revelation comes from a Department of Finance briefing note that summarizes an economic policy retreat organized by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last summer.

The retreat was attended by a long list of business leaders and representatives from right-wing think-tanks - all eager to advise members of the Harper Conservatives on how they should use their majority in Parliament.

The business audience told Flaherty that Canadian workers are overpriced and that Canada could only become truly competitive if the government addressed the "wage differential in labour markets between countries."

In order to drive down wages, participants pushed for American-style anti-union labour laws. They also called for deep cuts to public services and two-tiered health care - while asking for even more corporate tax cuts.

There are reasons why working Canadians should be concerned about this meeting.

First, there is no evidence that the government challenged the notion that Canadians are overpaid.

This is troubling because, after adjusting for inflation, wages for average Canadian workers have stagnated over the past 30 years, while corporate profits and incomes for the wealthy have increased. Even here in prosperous Alberta, nearly a quarter of all working people earn $15 an hour or less, not nearly enough for a decent home in Edmonton or Calgary.

Second, Canadians should be concerned because the wage suppression wish list outlined by business leaders has quietly, but clearly, become a central part the federal government's low-wage agenda. How else can we interpret the Harper government's decision to allow employers to use more temporary foreign workers and to pay them as much as 15 per cent less than Canadians?

Or rule changes that force many unemployed Canadians to take any available work even if it pays up to 30 per cent less than their previous job?

There's also the Harper government's decision to raise the retirement age to 67 and its ongoing attacks on unions designed to undermine the ability of workers to have a say in their own wages and working conditions.

Finally, working people should be concerned that Flaherty's secret meeting with business leaders is not an isolated case. The truth is that business leaders and groups like Merit Contractors (representing non-union construction companies) have ramped up their lobbying across Canada. With the most ideologically conservative prime minister in Canadian history leading a majority government, they see this as their political moment.

Some people may shrug and say "who needs unions anyway?"

But as Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said, unions are the only counterbalance we have to unbridled corporate power. They provide one of the only mechanisms we have to build and maintain a vibrant middle class.

So as working Albertans enjoy the Labour Day long weekend, it's important for them to understand that a battle rages around them.

Will the low-wage advocates who attended Flaherty's private policy summit win the day?

Or will Canadians reassert a traditional, progressive approach - fair taxation, investment in quality education and infrastructure, and policies that see unions as vital partners in the economy?

For the sake of Canada's middle class, let's hope that the high road vision prevails. Because if it doesn't, more of us may end up flipping burgers at McDonald's on Labour Day instead of flipping burgers at the lake.

Gil McGowan is president of the Alberta Federation of Labour

The Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 3 2012
Byline: Gil McGowan

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