Working at policy advocacy... sideways

Achieving policy change takes time. Sometimes, it requires shifting the approach to making the change happen.

Since Living Wage Week is in the month of November -- November 14 -21, 2022 – let’s consider the living wage movement. I’ll share a local example from Waterloo Region in Ontario where I live.

The idea of a living wage means that if you work full-time, you should be paid enough to cover your living expenses. There are many ways to try to operationalize the living wage idea. One of the main ways has been through collective bargaining, where workers form unions to bargain for decent pay and working conditions. Another has been through public policies like minimum wage laws and employment standards legislation.

MCC Ontario has been engaged with the living wage movement since 2007. Through our involvement with Campaign 2000, the network working to end child poverty in Canada, we became aware that many children living in poverty were in households where the parents had paid work -- even full-time paid work. But their jobs did not pay enough to lift their families out of poverty.

The reality for those families pointed to the rise in what is known as precarious work -- jobs with low pay, no benefits and little security. Precarious work emerged as large employers, including municipal governments, shifted to contracting out jobs like cleaning, security and food services to reduce costs. Where those workers used to be part of a union and covered by a collective wage agreement, now they were doing the same work but for a private employer with less pay and fewer or no benefits. Sometimes the people doing jobs like cleaning were treated as independent contractors, meaning they were not even covered by provincial employment standards, including the minimum wage.

One approach to address the problem was to get employers to commit to paying a living wage to all of their workers, including contracted service workers.

Already in the 1990s, there were advocacy campaigns in the United States to get municipalities to implement Living Wage bylaws, requiring that any businesses doing work for the municipalities need to pay their staff at or above the local living wage rate. Those campaigns had some success, with dozens of American cities implementing living wage bylaws.

My first involvement with the living wage movement was in 2007. MCC Ontario and a number of other organizations called on the Region of Waterloo to implement a living wage policy, committing to pay a living wage to all direct Regional employees and for all contracted services the Region hired. Regional councilors did not reject the living wage. They asked staff to study it. Then, the 2008 international financial crisis hit and the issue was set aside.

But that was not the end. By 2014, a new approach to the living wage was taking shape. The Living Wage Foundation in the United Kingdom launched a Living Wage Employer Program focused not just on governments but on all employers. They began accrediting hundreds of businesses, organizations and governments as living wage employers. In Canada, the Living Wage for Families Campaign in BC took a similar approach and saw early success.

When a national living wage framework was released for Canada, MCC Ontario connected again with the same organizations we had worked with in our attempt to encourage the Region of Waterloo to implement a living wage policy. We were joined by Kindred Credit Union and decided to create a local living wage employer program. We had signed up approximately 14 employers, including all the organizations involved in creating the program, when the City of Cambridge called asking how to become a certified living wage employer. They became the first Ontario city to become a living wage employer.

Eventually, we linked up with other local living wage campaigns in Ontario to create the Ontario Living Wage Network. Hundreds of employers have achieved living wage certification since then, including the City of St. Catharines, Huron County and the City of Kingston.

We did sit down with the Regional Chair and senior staff of the Region of Waterloo to brief them on how the Living Wage Employer Certification program worked, but we never formally went before Waterloo Regional Council again to lobby for the implementation of a living wage policy. However, the wheels were quietly in motion behind the scenes, and by November of 2022, the Region of Waterloo had taken the steps needed to seek and achieve living wage employer certification.

The experience reminds me of the line from the movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Building the Living Wage Employer Program and certifying many smaller organizations and private businesses -- many Credit Unions in Ontario have become Living Wage Employers -- paved the way for larger organizations like municipalities to implement living wage policies.

There is still much work to be done to make sure all workers in Ontario have decent work that pays a living wage. Campaigns to achieve a higher minimum wage, for instance, have been critical for reaching more workers whose employers do not pay a living wage. And as the living wage program has become more recognized, it has helped shape the debate about what a realistic minimum wage should be.

Here is what you can do:

Visit the Ontario Living Wage Network website to learn more about the living wage movement. If you are an employer, consider becoming a certified living wage employer.

Check out the living wage employer directory and consider supporting living wage employers in your community with your business.

Listen and share stories of the difference a living wage makes: Ep 12: Making a living and Ep 19: Soup from MCC’s Undercurrents podcast.

Encourage your municipal politicians to have your municipality become a living wage employer.