Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Research: Opposition arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by government MLAs to justify a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 115 statements made by various flavours of conservative MLAs in the Legislation.

Opposition MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that increases:
  1. were opposed by employers,
  2. would not reduce poverty,
  3. would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers, and
  4. would cause prices to rise, which would harm other vulnerable groups such as seniors and the disabled.
Opposition MLAs employed three main discursive strategies to justify their opposition. The discursive strategy most frequently used by opposition MLAs in all four years was the cautionary tale. The narratives associated with this strategy was that raising the minimum wage were opposed by employers and would cause job losses:
Mr. Hunter: …I rise to talk about the people in Cardston-Taber-Warner that are concerned about the rising minimum wage. A local restaurant owner, Dan Brown, wrote me the other day. Dan has been running his restaurant for five and a half years, and he… is concerned about the impact minimum wage increases will have on youth employment. Dan is also very concerned about the impact the $15 minimum wage will have on his labour costs. He is faced with some tough choices. He can reduce hours of existing employees or not hire new staff. Dan doesn’t know how he would be able to afford to hire inexperienced staff. (2015.06.22, 128)
The second most frequently used discursive strategy was theoretical rationalization (i.e., research suggests X outcome). Specifically, opposition MLAs asserted that increasing the minimum wage would cause job losses and would not reduce poverty:
Mr. W. Anderson: …Stephen Gordon wrote a piece in Maclean’s [magazine] in 2013 discussing the theory being pushed by big labour that minimum wages hikes mean more jobs. In his survey of the literature, he found that there was no proof of it and that Canada, even more clearly than the U.S., has shown a clear relationship between wage hikes and job losses. 
In addition, in the survey of the literature, he cites a peer-reviewed 2012 study that finds that, quote, our results highlight that, political rhetoric, notwithstanding, minimum wages are poorly targeted as an anti-poverty device and are, at best an exceedingly blunt instrument for dealing with poverty. (2015.06.24, 263-264).
The third most frequently used discursive strategy was impersonal authorization (i.e., using the authority of others to justify a position). This strategy saw opposition MLAs cite various sources of research to bolster the narrative that a minimum-wage increase would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, 433).
There is research both supporting and refuting this assertion, although the balance refutes it. Interestingly, government MLAs made little effort to counter research-based criticism. Instead, government MLAs increasingly focusing on moral evaluation. This may reflect that opposition MLAs cited research that agrees with a commonsensical (albeit not necessarily correct) understanding of wages and employment.

Impersonal authorization was not, however, a universally successful strategy for opposition MLAs. Early in the dataset, there were numerous instances where opposition MLAs referred to statements and research by various employer lobby groups (e.g., Chambers of Commerce, Canadian Restaurant and Food Association) to attack increases. The use of this kind of data declined after tis 2016 exchange between conservative MLA Ric McIver and government MLA Maria Fitzpatrick:
Mr. McIver: …On top of that, businesses across this province, the restaurants’ association, many chambers of commerce, and business groups have almost universally… [are] dead set against this government’s minimum wage policy to artificially drive up the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a very accelerated way. … 
Ms. Fitzpatrick: …Now I had a little experience with the chamber of commerce in my community of Lethbridge. When the minimum wage came out, they talked about how much it was going to cost. …The chair of the chamber of commerce told me that it was going to cost $86,000 for this business in one year because of this increase. Okay. So $86,000 is 86,000 hours since there’s a $1 increase…. To get $86,000 you’d need 41 full-time employees working 40 hours a week, and that was not the case. In fact, I got the correct figures and went back to the chamber of commerce, and she said: no, no, no; I think that was over the few years. I said: but you told me it was over one year. (2016,04.20, 688-689).
Overall, opposition MLAs relied most heavily on the cautionary-tale strategy, asserting that minimum-wage increases would cause job losses. They also sought to theoretically rationalize opposition by using research to counter government narratives that increases alleviated poverty. Research—by academics and interest groups—were also employed using an impersonal authorization strategy.

Looking at both opposition and government discursive strategies, an interesting dynamic emerges. As opposition MLAs increasingly focus on asserting job losses, government MLAs decline to debate this (high-contestable) assertion. Instead, they increasingly focus on the moral argument that increases alleviate poverty and provide dignity and fairness. Opposition MLAs respond by doubling down on research-based arguments—carefully avoiding engaging with the moral argument that government MLAs articulate.

Next week, we’ll look at the business lobby’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

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