Commentary: ABC’s decision to no longer commit to the living wage shows who they value
By Sean Orr
During the 2022 Vancouver election campaign, a supporter came up to me and showed me their handmade tote bag with the words “Ken Sim = Class War” printed on it.
It was a fitting, albeit somewhat hyperbolic slogan for a mayoral candidate funded by Chip Wilson, whose Pacific Prosperity Network also sponsored a film by controversial director Aaron Gunn called Vancouver is Dying that echoed far-right tropes painting progressive cities as dystopian hellholes. Even the National Post had to declare that Sim was “hardly a fascist.” Still, it wasn’t exactly clear what Ken Sim and his ABC party stood for, a typical hallmark of what the late political economist David Graeber called the “extreme centre.” We would have to wait to see how his party governed.
Although he missed the first police board budget meeting to go to the World Cup in Qatar (where 6,500 migrant workers died since the country was awarded the World Cup, and whose anti-LGBTQ2 policies came under scrutiny), and asked if the Vancouver Public Library had looked into generating revenue, it seemed Sim’s claims of a “post-partisan” council might hold up. His party passed a motion by OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle to make it faster and easier to build non-profit, co-op, and supportive housing in every neighbourhood (albeit with heavy amendments), and gave her a (literal) round of applause.
But then Sim defended ABC Coun. Brian Montague after the latter was spotted wearing the historically racist and divisive thin blue line patch. Then, his council killed the renter office. Then, it dismissed the Climate Justice Charter, which included a robust equity framework. Then, it passed a motion to effectively muzzle non-profits by demanding members be “respectful.” And it’s decided to abandon the city’s Living Wage Program after six years.
All of a sudden, it seems that “Ken Sim = Class War” is no longer hyperbole.
A living wage is the hourly amount a family needs to cover basic expenses and still be above the poverty line. The latest calculation for Metro Vancouver is $24.08 per hour. The figure does not include debt repayment, future savings for home ownership, or the cost of caring for a disabled or elderly family member.
In a statement posted on March 2, the BC Federation of Labour called on council to reverse the decision, saying it was a “breathtaking abdication of leadership.” The Vancouver and District Labour Council also called on City Hall to reconsider, saying it was disappointed the decision was “made without the opportunity for consultation with community, stakeholders, and affected workers.” Indeed, the decision was made behind closed doors at an in-camera meeting.
In a city long hailed as one of the most expensive to live in the world—made worse by historically low wages, rising inflation, and soaring corporate profits—this move can only be seen as a cold-hearted attack on working class families. It will greatly affect those workers already in precarious situations and it sends the message that you can work here, you just can’t live here.
Supporters will likely say paying workers a wage based on the five-year average is to account for annual fluctuations in workers’ and contract employees’ salaries. But as many others have pointed out, you don’t pay for groceries or rent based on a five-year average. Someone who has the interest of workers in mind would know this.
But this is exactly who ABC masqueraded as on the campaign trail. At the Women Transforming Cities event Centring Equity, a report card was presented where every single ABC councillor committed to “An Equity Lens on Councillor Motions.” Every single one. And yet this budget, and the move to cut the Living Wage Program, hardly falls within an equity framework.
In fact, this budget reminds us that prioritizing bloated police budgets and the colonial carceral system defunds all of us, especially those communities seeking the equity that ABC councillors so eagerly promised. It also doesn’t keep us safe.
An insidious side effect of the decision to cut the Living Wage Program is that corporations that currently offer a living wage will follow suit. In fact, we are already seeing this. It could also set a precedent that other municipalities could follow, citing budgetary constraints and austerity measures—although Port Coquitlam, Quesnel, and Victoria have committed to pay their staff the new living wage.
But a bigger issue is the snowball effect that paying people less creates down the line. As provincial manager of Living Wage for Families BC Anastasia French said, “Working poverty has enormous fiscal implications for social programs, health-care costs, education, employment, and criminality. Paying city workers the Living Wage is a key solution to solving these issues.”
ABC is showing its true colours and counting on voters to have a short memory. The hypocrisy inherent in a billionaire-funded campaign that ran on a platform of equity and affordability is staggering. Equity for whom? Affordability for whom? It certainly isn’t for renters, families, and workers.
Sean Orr is a writer, student, musician, activist, and former candidate for city council with Vote Socialist.