I’m spending my day working on my dissertation and trying to tune out the conversations happening around me, and am having little success on either count. Building on the topics I started ranting about yesterday, though, I eavesdropped on the owners of the (small, independent) coffee shop talking to a regular about the problems with increasing minimum wage (among other opinions about the general levels of “entitlement” held by the ungrateful younger generation that made me feel stabby). The arguments they made were, to me, quite telling in exposing the problems with the whole conversation about fair compensation for work in the current economy.
They suggested that a minimum wage of $14/hour – a proposal brought forward a few months ago by a group of activist organizations here in Ontario – would be a problem because people who are currently making that amount of money would be upset that they don’t get a raise. And further, that this would mean that people emerging from skilled labour training programs would find themselves making only minimum wage, which would be inappropriate given their skills.
And that was it. Granted, it was a short, offhand, conversation among acquaintances, not a well-designed argument or essay of some sort. Still, the connections and associations that they draw in these knee jerk reactions (or not so knee jerk, since the news about the suggestion is in fact a few months old) are revealing to me. The $14/hour number was chosen by these groups because it would mean that working full time at minimum wage would put an individual at 10% above the poverty line. That strikes me as a good starting place for the discussion about what constitutes a fair wage, but the reactions are based on the perception of a slight against workers who are currently supporting themselves at this just-above-the-poverty-line level. The implication is that they wouldn’t want to be making the same amount as people who are doing lower-class work, not for economic reasons, but for reasons of pride and what they ‘deserve’ – the appropriate word there may actually be ‘entitlement’.
Now, I’m perfectly willing to also entertain the notion that people in skilled labour positions should be paid more than they currently receive, or that an increase in the minimum wage should be accompanied by some level of upswing in the wages of other workers. What intrigues me is the automatic assumption that minimum wage workers must be kept behind these others. I’m reading into this to some degree, but I think there’s a moralistic tone to it. While the advocacy group is saying that the moral social position would be to ensure that any worker putting in what we have defined as a full time work week should be able to live above the poverty line, the responses here are based on the premise that some people and positions demonstrate a superiority that must be recognized within the social contract in the form of wage disparities.
I really must consider rereading my Weber.