The Fight For Fifteen: A Decent Living for Yukon Workers

The Yukon’s Minimum Wage today stands at $11.07. If you are wondering – how is that a living wage? – the answer is it’s not.

The Yukon Federation of Labour is one of many voices around the country calling for a raise in the minimum wage to $15. The Minimum Wage is the lowest amount employers must pay by law. “Minimum wage jobs are not just filled by teenagers looking for pocket money, or by seniors hoping to help support their pensions,” says YFL President Vikki Quocksister. “With the downturn in Yukon’s mining sector, many families are looking for any work they can get, some taking two or even three jobs. Factor in the high costs of housing, childcare, food and supplies, the Yukon is quickly becoming un-livable for many.”

If a couple with two kids is each earning the living wage, the family can afford food and rent, clothes and bus passes, and some recreational activities for the kids, so long as Mom and Dad don’t drink or smoke or spend money on their own recreation. If they have no debt to service, no expensive health problems, and don’t take vacations, one of the parents can afford to take night classes to improve their situation. Currently, they have no chance of owning a home.

According to the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition, based on a set of guidelines for a very modest lifestyle outlined in the Living Wage Framework, the 2016 living wage for Whitehorse is $19.12.
Though there is no direct connection to the Living Wage, it’s clear that the $11.07 minimum wage is woefully inadequate. It’s barely over half what it costs to live a decent life here. Still more than four bucks behind the living wage, $15 is seen by many as a bare minimum for even a single worker.

The Living Wage Framework was first released in 2013 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Vibrant Communities Canada. It can be used anywhere in Canada to calculate the local living wage, an amount a family of four can get by on, though they’ll still be a long way from Easy Street. The Living Wage is a guideline for employers, and isn’t meant to be a substitute for the minimum wage. Employers are asked to sign on voluntarily to the Living Wage Certification Program. They do it because it benefits them in a number of ways: in fewer lost hours because better-paid employees are healthier and happier, in a rise in productivity and a reduction in turnover, and in public recognition of their decision to do the right thing by their workers. One by one, employers around the country are seeing the value of the Living Wage, and agreeing to sign on.

The movement toward a $15 minimum wage, known as the “Fight For Fifteen”, began in the US in 2013. Thousands of workers in more than a hundred cities walked off the job to protest a federal minimum wage of only $7.25. Since then California and New York have passed laws that will gradually raise the minimum wage to $15. So has the City of Seattle, and several other municipalities. When President Obama spoke of a gradual rise in the federal minimum wage in his 2013 State of the Union Address, New York Times economist Paul Krugman called it a “good policy” that would have “overwhelmingly positive effects”.

In 2014, the Federal NDP proposed a motion to gradually raise the federal minimum wage in Canada to $15. Since most workers fall under provincial and territorial wage laws, the move would have affected only a small portion of the workforce. The Liberals, then the third party, ridiculed the idea, and the Harper government defeated the motion. Alberta’s NDP government has announced a plan to reach $15 by 2018. Ontario is considering similar changes, and labour organizations across the country are pressing the rest of the provinces to do the same.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses strongly opposes the $15 minimum wage, and is campaigning against the Notley plan. Here in the Yukon, the Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position for or against the $15 minimum, but acknowledges that some workers here are struggling. “We have concerns about affordable housing,” said YCC president Peter Turner, “we believe that affordable housing may help lower-wage workers as much as a higher minimum, or the living wage, would do.”

While opponents of the $15 movement point to studies claiming that a rise in the minimum wage would cause job losses and business closures, the latest review of information on the subject, conducted by Unifor economist Jim Stanford, found that the minimum wage is “virtually statistically irrelevant as a determinant of employment levels.” This applies even in industries where workers commonly earn minimum wage.

Lower income workers need to earn a decent living, and there is no evidence to support the claim that the economy can’t afford to pay it to them. The Yukon Federation of Labour supports the movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage. It’s a bare living at best, but it’s a place to start.