Sunday, February 2, 2014

Kathleen Wynne: Ontario's Worst Tipper

Documented proof of Kathleen Wynne's stinginess.
So let's say you've just had a meal at a diner--breakfast, perhaps--and your bill comes to $10.25. How much do you tip? 15% would be the norm, higher if you felt you got great service or if you had a thing for your server, but what if you left 7%? That amount would seem to suggest you felt there was something wrong with the service, that it wasn't quite right; not bad enough to cause you to leave without tipping, but shoddy enough that you felt it necessary to send a message to your server. Or maybe you're just a lousy Kathleen Wynne.

Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne just raised the province's minimum wage by 75 cents to $11, which represents an increase of 7%. Clearly, Ontario's minimum wage workers (roughly 9% of the workforce) have done something to disappoint Wynne. Did a supermarket cashier crush her bread by putting it in the same bag as the potatoes? Perhaps a coffee shop employee forgot to stamp her loyalty card? Or did the office cleaners neglect to scrape a wet tissue out of the bottom of her wastebasket? We may never know. Wynne has put these workers on warning that their attitudes better improve if they want to get a tip raise to $14 an hour, which would put them fractionally above the poverty line.

Heavy, bitter sarcasm aside, Premier Wynne has essentially insulted every minimum wage worker in Ontario with a parsimonious increase on an hourly wage that's already laughably low. Does it help? In a meagre way, yes, it probably eases the financial pain for some people, but only in the sense that a cold day outside feels better than a very cold day--it's still goddamn winter. What's worse is that Wynne is proposing to make further increases automatic, but tied to the inflation rate. This is a duplicitous move that would see the minimum wage permanently pegged below the poverty line while letting the government appear to be caring and generous. As is normal with an increase in the minimum wage, the usual suspects in the small-business lobbying world (read a full Toronto Star article on the issue here) squealed loudly about the dire consequences of making poor people slightly less poor. The provincial Conservative Party chimed in with their corporate masters, and, somewhat surprisingly, NDP leader Andrea Horvath (apparently a paper-tiger socialist) had nothing to say about how ridiculous this raise is.

In that Toronto Star article I linked to above, a restaurant owner named Steve Mastoras complains that the increase will add $30k to his payroll per year, and, he mutters darkly, may lead to lower staffing levels. The Star should have done a little basic research into Steve's business in order to highlight how inconsequential this raise is to business owners. Mastoras owns Whistler's Grille in Toronto, which is open 7 days a week, 16 hours a day. Applying some basic math reveals that Steve will need to take in an extra $83 a day, or just over $5 a hour, to make up for the increase to his payroll. Whistler's has over 50 items on its menu, not including soft drinks, coffee, tea and beer and wine, and there's also a banquet hall that provides an extra income. It doesn't take a degree in accountancy to realize that Mastoras can pass the wage increase on to his customers with price increases that would amount to pennies per menu item. When presented as a lump sum $30k sounds like a big hit, but put in context it's risible, just like the increase in the minimum wage.

Steve Mastoras and lobbying groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business fit the definition of an economic sub-group that both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes chose to describe as "cheap bastards." Yes, petit bourgeois capitalists are among the tightest of the tight, and they'll support any measure, no matter how punitive it is to others, that will improve their bottom line. The fact that a hefty minimum wage increase might actually improve their business doesn't enter their calculations. Intriguingly, Dave Bryans, the chief executive of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, supported the wage increase. Bryans, unlike most politicians and business lobbying groups, seems to realize that the wage increase also represents an increase in spending power for workers, and some of that money will end up being spent in convenience stores. Who knows, if the wage had gone up to $14 some people might have had enough money drop in at Whistler's Grille and have a meal. People at the lowest end of the hourly wage bracket shop and spend locally, unlike the middle classes who earmark a significant chunk of their discretionary spending for cross-border shopping, trips south, and those all-important artisanal cheeses from France.

Kathleen Wynne's reluctance to do the humane thing and raise the minimum wage above the poverty level also reflects an attitude that many in the upper income levels of society share: if you're working for minimum wage that means that you're either stupid, lazy, or incompetent, and possibly all three. From this point of view a miserly minimum wage is a richly-deserved punishment for the dregs of society. Why should we want to give a decent living to people who aren't, well, decent people?

Aside from some poorly-funded anti-poverty advocacy groups, no one is agitating strongly for a realistic minimum wage. So here's how you can protest effectively against what amounts to a pro-poverty minimum wage. If you work for minimum wage and encounter Kathleen Wynne as part of your job, politely tell her that you won't be able to provide a decent level of service until she gives you a decent wage. You can then make her wait an extra few minutes while you get her dry cleaning off the rack; neglect to refill her coffee; only partially empty her office wastebasket (make sure to leave behind anything disgusting); and if you're a care worker in charge of one of Wynne's aged relatives, let her know that she'll have to come over and help out with emptying bedpans. You'd probably get fired for doing any of these things, so restrict yourself to telling Wynne about all the different ways working for minimum wage restricts your ability to lead a pleasant life. If you manage to make her feel irritated and uncomfortable, consider your protest action a success--you've given Wynne a taste of what life is like on minimum wage.

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