Liv­ing wage won’t kill us

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - FORUM - PHIL MCNICHOL

In the midst of the Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s my par­ents left school to find work to help their im­pov­er­ished fam­i­lies. As fate would have it they both found jobs, first Dad and then Mom, in the same Toronto food-pro­cess­ing fac­tory. Whether they were paid by the hour or not, I don’t know. Nor do I know if they worked 40-hour weeks; likely not, in that day and age. What I do know – be­cause I heard Mom say it of­ten enough - their weekly take-home pay was $5.

As­sum­ing a 40-hour week, that works out to 12 and a half cents per hour.

As for work­ing con­di­tions, one day Dad got his home-made shirt caught in a ma­chine. The shirt was made of rough cloth sugar sacks. For­tu­nately, the ma­chine ripped the shirt off his back be­fore he got pulled into its grind­ing mech­a­nism. He had to jump on his bi­cy­cle and rush home to get his mother to sew it back to­gether be­cause it was the only shirt he had. Then, af­ter about an hour or so away from the fac­tory, he rushed back to work. His pay was docked for the time away.

Now it’s cer­tainly fair to say times were tough for a lot of peo­ple dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. But some peo­ple were do­ing OK, bet­ter than just OK ap­par­ently, when I re­call an­other story Mom used to tell about the day some rich ma­trons showed up in front of the McNichol home on one of the poor­est streets in west Toronto.

They ar­rived in a big chauf­fer-driven car to de­liver a char­ity food bas­ket. The well-groomed ladies in their fine clothes and fur coats – for it was win­ter, you see – car­ried the bas­ket to the front porch and knocked. Dad’s Mom, with her proud Ir­ish head bent low, ac­cepted the bas­ket. The ladies smiled down on her, turned, and left, feel­ing good about them­selves and their no­ble act of char­ity. Af­ter the big, black car drove away my pa­ter­nal grand­mother sat on the porch steps and cried her eyes out, so the story goes; and I be­lieve it.

Fast for­ward about 20 years, to the mid-1950s, be­fore the age of pay eq­uity. (The first ref­er­ence I could find online to the Min­i­mum Wage in Canada and pro­vin­cial govern­ments, in­clud­ing On­tario, was a fed­eral data­base that went back as far as 1965. Even then the min­i­mum wage in the “south­ern On­tario zone was $1 per hr for men, and 95 cents per hr for women.) A sin­gle mother work­ing in the head­quar­ters of a ma­jor Cana­dian fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tion made less than 63 cents per hour – 62.5 cents, to be ex­act, based on a 40-hour week. She found it im­pos­si­ble to sup­port her­self and her young son, me, without work­ing two part-time jobs, her lunch hours in a down­town cafe­te­ria, and evenings at a movie the­atre snack bar. And still, it was never enough.

A few years later when I was a high school stu­dent I got a part­time job work­ing evenings and week­ends in a sub­ur­ban Toronto su­per­mar­ket. The start­ing pay was 35 cents per hour. Just to put things into per­spec­tive, you could buy a box or bag of name-brand cook­ies for 39 cents and a can of Cana­dian sar­dines for 19 cents.

Dur­ing an ex­tended break in my post-se­condary ed­u­ca­tion I worked at a few full-time jobs. But I re­ally counted my­self lucky to land a job at the Cana­dian na­tional parts de­pot of one of the “bigth­ree” au­tomak­ers in 1968.

I re­mem­ber my soon-to-be new boss, af­ter he said I had the job, cast­ing his right arm in a sweep­ing ges­ture at the ware­house­men work­ing in the pack­ing/ship­ping area. “These are all $100-a-week men,” he said proudly. He had been a com­pany man since be­fore “the war,” mean­ing the sec­ond world war.

“We ship auto parts all the way to Iraq,” he said, proudly again.

He needed me to know this wasn’t just any job. Af­ter all, at the semi-princely sum of $100 a week, that was $2.50 per hour.

Oh, how times have changed. When I was a boy, sto­ries about my par­ents work­ing at $5 per week jobs seemed in­cred­i­ble. But I dare­say it sounds in­cred­i­ble to a new gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple to hear a story about any­body ever re­joic­ing to get a job that paid $100 a week.

What is a liv­ing wage nowa­days? What, for that matter, was a liv­ing wage in 1938? Or 1954? Or 1968?

Statis­tics Canada re­leased some in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion this past week. Tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion 2016 cen­sus data col­lected, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment agency said the “me­dian” in­comes of Cana­di­ans over­all has risen in the past 10 years by 10.8 per cent, to $70,336. Ev­ery prov­ince and ter­ri­tory shows in­creases, though they vary from place to place. Nu­navut shows the biggest in­crease, 36.7 per cent, to a me­dian in­come in 2016 of $97,441. On­tario’s in­crease was the low­est, at 3.8 per cent, with a me­dian in­come in 2016 of $74,287.

So, what is a liv­ing wage? Hard to say. It’s com­pli­cated. But are low-in­come peo­ple, the poor in other words, to blame for more than 75 years of in­fla­tion? I don’t think so.

But what­ever a liv­ing wage is, the cur­rent Lib­eral gov­ern­ment of On­tario’s plan to raise the min­i­mum wage to $15 per hour by Jan­uary 1, 2019 may bring low­in­come wage earn­ers close to a liv­ing-wage in­come level, or not, at $31,200 an­nu­ally for a full-time job.

If it does, it’s what ev­ery per­son who works for wages should get for their daily labours. It’s long over­due. And I doubt the sky will fall if it hap­pens.

DE­NIS PEPIN

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