Living Wages from Boston to Canada

Ottawa City Hall

Boston Talking to organizers the last night about security workers being subcontracted, one casually mentioned what could and could not be done because of the Boston Living Wage ordinance.  At Boston University with Professor Lee Staples as we made the case and claims for the power of community organizing it was natural to once again reference the impact of the more than great living wage ordinance ACORN and labor allies had won in Boston what seems like yesterday, but probably more than 10 years ago now.

In living wage fights in the US the issue is often framed around what the impact on jobs and employers will be.  In talking about citizen wealth in these fights we often had to defend against whether or not living wages were an appropriate anti-poverty method, rather than being able to assume that everyone shared a value that work should be paid fairly to the laborer.

I couldn’t help thinking as we parsed this again at BU about the very different way that ACORN Canada is dealing with living wage matters in New Westminster (outside of Vancouver) that just voted to research the matter this week or in Ottawa where a critical vote is happening today, 12/3/09.  In Ottawa the framing is overtly about citizen wealth and, importantly, poverty reduction, and in taking the issue head on in a report being released today called “Poverty is Not Cheap” (www.acorncanada.org), ACORN Canada doesn’t mince words or dollars.  Using figures and methodology from recent reports by the Ontario Association of Food Banks, they were able to calculate that the cost of poverty to every household in the province was a staggering $2300!

Bringing the figure home in Ottawa the report calculated the cost just to the city budget of allowing poverty to exist and encouraging its health by not paying living wages:

What does Ottawa pay towards social programs?

Employment and Financial Assistance Ontario Works Financial Assistance $148,834,000
ODSP $42,396,000
Housing Public Housing $23,774,000
Rent supplement Programs $19,871,000
Homeless Support Services $6,667,000
National Homelessness Initiatives $7,197,000
Affordable Housing $267,000
Child Care Services Ontario Works $4,411,000
Best Start $10,955,000
City of Ottawa – Adopted Operating Expenditures for 2009 and Variance from 2008.  http://www.ottawa.ca/city_hall/budget/budget_2009/images/cps_en.pdf, at pp. 4 and 5.

Ottawa’s price tag: $264,372,000

Add to all of this some additional figures that indicated why a living wage should be between $12 and $13 per hour, and when one lay the report back down, it seemed like the leaders of Ottawa would be making a serious financial mistake by not paying all subcontracted workers a living wage!

It’s worth watching this vote closely for what could be history in the making in Canada, just as the living wage ordinance made huge change and critical history in Boston.

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