Raising the British Columbia Minimum Wage

Financial Justice International Labor Organizing

gordonVancouver Even as the regional leaders of the BCGEU were strategizing with me on Friday morning about living wage campaigns in their cities and raising the minimum wage in British Columbia, according to the Prince George Free Press the local City Council had reneged on a pledge made in 2007 to the support an increase from $8 to $10.  The previous City Council had signed on to a request from the BC Federation of Labor along with 16 other cities in the province.  Now they wanted to run from the issue and push it back to their “poverty reduction” committee to come up with something else or another way to deal with these issues.  I didn’t read the paper until I was waiting for the 530 AM flight from Prince George to Vancouver or I would have loved to have asked Jim Sinclair, the well regarded President of the BC Fed who was also with me at the BCGEU conference, what he would have made of this problem.

I think it speaks to the need for a provincial (statewide) strategy for increasing the minimum wage, as difficult as that might be given the likely fierce opposition of Premier Gordon Campbell, who sits on top of provincial government now with the Liberal Party.  Talking to leaders and staff of the BCGEU, there seems no question that it is legal to bring forward an initiative petition.  The requirements are stiff though and results are uncertain.

A petition would have to be registered with the Elections office, and once secured the petitioner would have 90 days to get the required signatures, meaning 10 % of the registered voters in each riding (legislative district).  Then there is a period for verification of the signatures (about 40 days) and a referral to the legislative standing committee to determine whether to table the bill or force a province wide vote.  If a vote were required, then the election would be held in late September, 2011.  This is not a slam dunk still, since winning a vote of the people does not enact the measure, but instead forces the bill to be part of the gristmill of the legislative process where it may be amended and rise or fall.  So, there’s no denying this would be a huge lift and a fierce fight.

Those are the “cons,” but here are the “pros.”

  • Unbelievably the minimum wage in British Columbia is the lowest in Canada and has not been increased since 2001.  Literally NO ONE thinks it is a fair wage for anyone at this point.
  • Labor has density still in British Columbia, and if convinced to join and lead this fight with groups like ACORN Canada and others, including the parties out of power, has the breadth and depth to make a difference.
  • We need issues that force the question of fair and just wages for work into the public and political debate about community development and citizen wealth, and as we have seen in numerous communities and states in both Canada and the United States, nothing does the job better than forcing the forefront the reality of inadequate minimum wages.  Let Gordon Campbell stand in front of a fast moving train for fair wages and see let’s see if there’s any way for him to put the pieces back together if he opposes the popular will.
  • Win, lose, or draw, the progressive forces in BC win by showing leadership on this issue and bringing forward a fight on an issue that would be so widely popular and eminently reasonable as raising the minimum wage.   A noxious matter with negative public policy impacts around “harmonizing” the sales tax is headed towards a vote, and we could use something on our side of the fence which is even more widely popular.

The dilemma before the Prince George city council is familiar to us.  We saw a piece of this debate as part of the winning coalition in winning a real living wage for contract employees in New Westminster.  In order to embolden politicians to do the right thing around living wages, we need to create the debate and pressure for fair and just minimum wages, and it is difficult to imagine a better way to do this than to push forward an initiative petition and let the people step up and be counted, first with their signatures, and later, if necessary, with their votes.

Visiting with the leaders in Prince George was exciting.  It made me start to think that British Columbia should be first, not last.