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20 cents of separation

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It wasn’t surprising that this week’s minimum wage announcement pleased neither organized business nor organized labour.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and the Manitoba Federation of Labour (MFL) exist to argue for the well-being of businesses and workers, respectively.

No business wants to see its costs go up. Workers — especially the lowest paid — want to see their incomes rise.
That leaves government to sort out what to do.

This government has let it be known that it will raise the minimum wage annually — period. The timing of an increase and the size of the increase is negotiable, but that’s it.

Within that context, the Manitoba Employers Council, which represented business in talks with government, proposed a 30 cent increase, while the MFL proposed a 75 cent increase.

The province opted to boost the minimum wage by 50 cents to $9.50, effective Oct. 1, satisfying nobody except, perhaps, a lot of those who earn minimum wage.

Business got some of what it wanted — if there was to be an increase, it wanted it to take effect later in the year. The government obliged. Labour got an increase, but not all it wanted — the MFL wants the minimum wage to eventually be pegged at 60 per cent of the industrial wage, which would work out to $13.20 an hour. It wants sizable yearly increases so the minimum wage will get up there eventually.

The government is in a no-win situation. So what does the official Opposition say?

The Conservative party has strong ties with business, but it also wants to make inroads next election in Winnipeg, where many of the 28,000 minimum wage workers and their families live.

So, yesterday, PC leader Hugh McFadyen walked a bit of a tightrope when questioned on the wage increase.

On the one hand, he made a traditional business case that the real way to improve wages is for government to create an environment where the private sector is increasing jobs, creating labour shortages. Simply increasing costs to business is a jobs killer, McFadyen told reporters at the Legislative Building.

On the other hand, he let it be known that he worked at a minimum wage job at Kmart while attending university and he could, therefore, understand how any minimum wage earner would welcome a pay raise.

A prime example of the gospel McFadyen was preaching of increasing wages through private-sector growth occurred during the height of the Alberta oil boom, when that province’s economy was on overdrive. Four years ago, the starting wages for counter staff at a number of Tim Hortons establishments in southern Alberta exceeded $10 an hour. The province’s minimum wage at the time was $7 an hour. Restaurant owners needed to pay that wage to attract workers. (Incidentally, Manitoba’s minimum wage back then was $7.60 an hour, and that’s what many starting Tims workers were making in Winnipeg.)

But this is Manitoba in 2010. Pressed yesterday on whether he would have given Manitoba minimum wage earners a pay boost this year, McFadyen allowed that he would have been "guided by" the 30 cent an hour offer made to government by the employers’ council.

So, when it comes down to it, is there only a 20-cent-an-hour difference between the governing New Democrats and the Opposition Conservatives on the minimum wage issue?

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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