#MeToo and the Minimum Wage

Tim Hortons
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When Patrick Brown, the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, resigned after what insiders call his “zipper problem” came to light, what was remarkable was the lack of any denying voices other than his own. No one came forward to insist that they knew Brown and this was not Brown, or that, even if he had treated these women poorly, using them for sex without their consent, he had always treated women well in general.

Similar statements in response to accusations against Al Franken and others have been quite rightly criticized for, at best, distracting from the issue at hand and, at worst, gaslighting the accuser, by implying that their experiences could not have happened or, if they did happen, were likely misconstrued.

There was no pretence of surprise in the case of Patrick Brown, no theatrically disbelieving colleagues.

Not one. This suggests a number of possibilities, in the following order of likelihood: that nobody liked Brown or felt they knew him personally at all; that he was known to be sexist, and had no meaningful professional contacts with women he could plausibly instrumentalize; or that his precise behaviour, and perhaps even the precise events themselves, were known to key people in his political team.

Certainly their instant exit, at the same time as he was announcing his plan to stay on as leader, suggests the explosion was anticipated. Fiercely partisan political professionals quitting en masse on the eve of an election cycle is noticeable.

Politics, like entertainment, is replete with megalomaniacal men, and Patrick Brown is almost certainly the first of a long list that will fall, as the testimonials of low-level staff, too many of whom have been dominated sexually with impunity by the powerful, find more fertile soil in the #MeToo moment.

It remains to be seen what happens when a beloved politician with a significant feminist pedigree has their “zipper problem” exposed. Where Patrick Brown fell flat without a peep from his own people, others will fight and flail, and their champions will hem and haw and hedge and humiliate themselves. It will be a shitshow—a long overdue shitshow.

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What the fall of Patrick Brown means for his poor party and the election is an open question, though it will be huge. It is likely to sweep all the other issues off the agenda, including the issue that was likely to be the deciding one: the raise in the minimum wage.

Brown was, it’s important to note, not the kind of conservative who thought he was better than everyone else because he could keep his sexuality under wraps; he was the kind who thought he was better than everyone else because he was rich—or knew rich people personally and desperately wanted them to need him, if not like him.

The party was going into the election with the firm support of the businesses that have made significant profits from underpaying workers, and resented strongly that the party that happened to be in power had had the temerity to pass a law that said that they had to pay their workers slightly more. If all had gone as planned, Patrick Brown would have made that problem go away.

The weeks leading up to Brown’s disappearance from public life offered a tantalizing glimpse of the kinds of arguments we were going to hear from those businesses.

This came from newspapers that print everything they say for some reason, and from PC candidates who paraphrase them on the hustings: that minimum wages hurt everyone, from the lowly minimum wage workers themselves (who foolishly campaigned for the raise without considering its inflationary effects) to the great franchise owners, who would lose money if they had to pay their workers more.

This was a remarkably brazen argument, but surprisingly effective. What seemed to escape writers and editors alike was that the extent to which Tim Hortons franchises’ costs would increase is exactly the extent to which they had been underpaying workers. Was it a few thousand dollars? Was it millions of dollars? The coverage suggested that the number was big and therefore unjust … to the owners. We were meant to be moved.

What is weird is that all of this explicit class warfare, in which the interests of minimum wage workers were being clearly championed by the party in power at the expense of the employers, had so little involvement from the New Democratic Party, the left-wing-est party with the clearest ties to labour and to low-wage workers.

This is because the NDP has to struggle constantly against the suggestion that it’s an anti-business party, sure to destroy any economy it’s put in charge of. Unsympathetic media, most of which favours right-wing parties, insists the NDP tack to the centre, while the Toronto Star, the paper of the unaligned urban progressive, openly prefers the Liberals to the NDP, and will pounce on any right-ward gestures, like the NDP’s awkward genuflexions to small business, as evidence that the party of the centre is really the party of the left, and vice versa. It’s dizzying.

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Beyond their cumulative effect on the outcome of the next provincial election, #MeToo and the minimum wage are alike in that they are both examples of people having to stop exploiting people. The exploitation of low-wage workers is of a different magnitude, because it’s ostensibly consensual and because it is inherent in the activity, whereas sexual exploitation is easily distinguished from a mutually enriching relationship of sexual intimacy, and therefore more callously selfish and harmful.

In fact, in many fields, monetary exploitation goes hand-in-hand with sexual exploitation.

In Hollywood, where #MeToo has made the biggest impact, female actors are systematically paid less than male, even when their roles are clearly more central to the film. These are examples we know, and are likely to find compelling because they happen to people we care deeply about, albeit vicariously.

But at the other end of the spectrum, service industry workers, who we see more often but pay less attention to, also experience sexual harassment and objectification as a routine of the daily grind. People for whom flirting is their only avenue to a living wage regularly encounter customers or bosses who expect to be able to exploit that relation infinitely. A higher wage and a sympathetic ear to their experiences will both make that work a little less bleak.

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David Tough

David Tough

david.tough

David Tough is a musician, scholar, and journalist from Peterborough, Ontario. He is Senior Editor of Electric City Magazine.