Inequality Infection is Spreading North to Canada

Map-1New Orleans   In Halifax, the ACORN Canada head organizers were meeting in a large open space in the former orphanage where we have our office on the third floor. The space is used for everything from board meetings to yoga classes making it truly multi-purpose. Looking out the window I could see down to the harbor and to the left as my gaze turned there was a giant building with 6-foot tall black letters proclaiming, “Assembly Hall.” I thought to myself, “What a strange name for a convention center?”

Leaving the meeting later that night we could hear a classic whistle blowing indicating a shift change, and driving back towards town it became clear that Assembly Hall was the plain spoken name for where the Irving Shipyards put together its ships on the harbor with buildings and ships lined up one after another along the water. Coming in from the airport days earlier, I had asked the Nova Scotia head organizer, what an Irving gas station was as we passed by. Turns out the Irving brothers are the Rockefellers of this particularly stretch of eastern Canada. One brother in 2015, JK Irving ranked 216 in the Forbes 400 Billionaire listing with $6.5 billion, he of the ships, timber and whatever, and the other brother, Arthur had fallen to 256 on the list with $5.5 billion since they had separated their operations in 2015, and he had ended up with the oil.

Up in the kinder and gentler north, the inequality infection is spreading rapidly though. The Irving’s are just the big whoops amazing billions as giants in their ponds, even if we’ve never heard of them below the border. One website was clear though:

The ranks of Canada’s super-rich are growing faster than they are in the U.S., and they are getting richer faster than their American counterparts, too, with wealth up 6.7 per cent last year. Canada’s 5,300 or so people with $30 million or more in wealth now control a total of more than $700 billion in wealth.

That’s not good news, though after a decade of Conservative Party, read Republican-type policies, no one should be surprised I suppose.

Talking about a frequent target of Ottawa ACORN, the huge 1300 unit Heron Gate apartment complex, we stumbled onto the same copycat phenomena, equity fund exploitation of real estate assets. Turned out the complex had flipped over to become a property of the Timbercreek Asset Management. Sure, you’ve never heard of them, but you can figure out the business model pretty quickly. They tout the fact that they have a 500-person office in Toronto and real estate operations in 26 cities across Canada with $5-billion in asset investments. They also have asset management investment offices, i.e. places where they largely try to raise money for their real estate purchases in Canada from investors with deep pockets in Hong Kong, New York, London, and Melbourne. Are you following me now?

These are operations without any commitment to best practices or local communities. They are new school asset flippers just like the old school natural resource exploiters of oil, water, and timber like the Irvings.

The inequality gap extends past personal wealth listings to strain peoples’ organizations and our ability to hold global capital accountable to local communities. David beats Goliath from time to time, but the odds are still all with Goliath.

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Moving Living Wages into Legislation

Congressman Al Green

New Orleans   Congressman Al Green from Houston was raised in New Orleans so he generously jumped at the chance to come over to address Local 100 United Labor Unions leaders from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana at the closing of our annual leadership conference.  In talking about issues for veterans, immigrants, minorities, the infirm, workers, and all of what he called, “the least, the last, and the lost,” he hit responsive cords with everyone, but the notion of putting living wages into federal legislation probably brought the most serious attention.

Green told us he had introduced a bill in Congress called L.A.W., the Living American Wage Act.  Basically, his is among many efforts to try to finally raise the federal minimum wage, but with a different twist.  He wants to address the ongoing and crippling stalemate that finds lower wage workers continually stuck for years while their wages are frozen and the cost of living increases.  Rather than just index the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index, he proposes in LAW to index the wage to the poverty rate to guarantee that workers are always making enough to keep out of poverty.  He proposes the level at 15% over the poverty level.

You’re thinking, “Who cares, it doesn’t have a chance anyway,” but this is not as crazy as you think as an argument in the debate, regardless of the eventual outcome.  We desperately need to index to something, everyone must agree.  To trap workers in a vicious cycle between always being frozen or having to try to catch-up is ridiculous.  When the Fair Labor Standards Act was initially passed there was extensive debate at that time, albeit when we still saw ourselves as an industrial country, of setting the minimum wage level as a percentage of the average industrial wage.  Had those proposals won, we would be living in a different country today.  Given the level of inequality and the role that the minimum wage plays in making it structural, perhaps looking “down” at the poverty level now makes more sense than looking up at the manufacturing wage, but let’s at least all agree with Congressman Green that we need to look somewhere, and do something.

There has been no movement on an increase in the minimum wage since President Obama’s remarks earlier this year that it was a priority.  I’m not sure who it is a priority for other than lower wage workers though and that may be why we’re hearing so little and seeing nothing about this measure these days.

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