Advocating for any kind of group is a difficult task, because of the responsibility of accurately representing the views of all the group members. In the case of advocating for businesses, the term “business” describes a type of organization or a legal entity. It doesn’t inherently represent a single political perspective, or a single point of view. So it’s troubling when “business advocacy” groups take sides on issues while apparently assuming that all business owners think the same way.
This week, the United Way of Halifax and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report estimating the amount of a “living wage” in the Halifax region. A “living wage” is not the legislated minimum wage; it’s a measure of what workers living in a specific geographic region need to earn to support their families. It’s usually calculated as “the hourly rate at which a household can meet its basic needs, once government transfers have been added to the family’s income and deductions have been subtracted.” A number of Canadian cities have passed “living wage” policies, as have a number of American cities.
The Halifax “living wage” report calculated the “living wage” in Halifax as $20.10 an hour for adult workers; the province of Nova Scotia’s legislated minimum wage is between $10.10 and $10.60 an hour, depending on the worker’s experience. The “living wage” report stated clearly, “The living wage is one of many tools in our tool-box to assist low wage workers — it is not a substitute for a higher minimum wage” and “The calculation of the living wage provides our community with information that should spark discussion”.
Dan Kelly, the president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, seemed to miss that the report’s purpose was to estimate Halifax’s “living wage” rate, not to demand that wages be raised to that rate. He went on Twitter to call the United Way a “left-wing advocacy group” and to suggest that “small firms rethink participation [in the United Way] & support charities directly”. This caused a firestorm of criticism, with many taking offense at CFIB’s attacking a charity with many years of service to Canadian communities. Kelly replied by calling the CCPA a “union front group” and stating that many Halifax employers could not afford to pay the “living wage” identified by the report.
Ironically, the organization that Kelly is portraying as anti-business has a long history of productive cooperation between businesses and unions. Most regional United Way boards, like this one, have equal representation from the labour movement and from private sector employers, as do the committees that chair the United Way’s annual fundraising campaigns.
Of the CFIB member businesses I know, most joined the organization to get member benefits, such as discounts on services they use in their business operations. But I haven’t heard that any of them were consulted on whether they agree that the United Way is a “left-wing advocacy group”, or on whether they want the CFIB to criticize research estimating – not demanding – living wages.
The CFIB is remarkably quiet about the way it determines that its public statements truly represent the views of its membership. And given the shoddy methodology of some of the CFIB’s research, it’s certainly worth asking how the organization decides what to support or to criticize.
This whole unfortunate business is remarkably reminiscent of last year’s events involving the Coalition of BC Businesses. During the 2014 BC teachers’ strike, the Coalition applied and was approved as an intervenor in a BC Supreme Court case involving bargaining disputes between the BC Federation of Teachers and the BC government. The Coalition’s application expressed support for the BC government’s position in the dispute. However, it gradually became clear that at least one corporate member of the Coalition did not support the application, and that many businesses who indirectly belonged to the Coalition did not support the application either – and were completely unaware that such advocacy, allegedly on their behalf, was taking place. Like the CFIB, the Coalition did not explain whether or how its membership was involved in the Coalition’s decision to take the government’s side in the dispute.
It’s simplistic to presume that all business owners share the same views and opinions just because they own a business. And, as these two examples demonstrate, it’s problematic for “business advocacy” groups to claim they are representing their members’ views when they don’t provide any evidence to show that their members have actually been consulted.
I would be willing to bet that many CFIB member businesses support the United Way – and also support having conversations about making communities and regions better places, and about paying workers enough to live on. Those businesses need to speak out. And if the CFIB and organizations like it continue with their monolithic assumptions about what businesses believe, it might be time for more progressive or broader-minded business owners to look for other advocates.