Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Research: Government arguments for minimum-wage increases

Alberta’s minimum-wage made its third and final jump to $15 per hour two weeks ago. Over the past few months, I have been examining the narratives and discursive strategies used to advance or oppose the increases by government and opposition MLAs as well by business and labour groups. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some preliminary results—feedback welcomed.

This week I’ll be sharing analysis of 91 statements by government MLA statements in the Legislature between 2015 and 2018. Government MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. would occur gradually over time,
  2. would alleviate poverty, particularly for women, single mothers, and new Canadians and specifically reduces food bank usage,
  3. was broadly supported by the public as well as by employers, and
  4. would increase the number of jobs by generating additional spending.
Government MLAs employed three main discursive strategies (i.e., types of arguments): instrumental rationalization (i.e., ends justify the means), moral evaluation (change advances laudable value), and public authorization (i.e., operationalizing the will of the people).

Instrumental rationalization was either the most or second-most used strategy in each of the four years, slowly ceding ground to moral evaluation (see below). The main narrative used to instrumentally rationalize minimum-wage increases was that they would alleviate poverty by increasing workers’ income. A secondary narrative was that increasing the minimum wage would increase the number of job because minimum-wage increases tend to be immediately spent, thereby increasing economic activity. Both narratives were evident in 2015:
Ms. Sigurdson: …When we put forward our platform, we wanted to make sure that workers in Alberta made fair wages so that when they went home to their families, they could support them and care for them, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve raised the minimum wage less than 10 per cent this year, and now people have more money in their pockets, that goes back into local businesses, and that’s actually stimulating our economy. (2015.10.27, 326-327)
Beginning in 2016, government MLAs began qualifying these narratives by emphasizing the slow pace of the increases and promising additional consultation with affected groups. This may reflect that opposition among business groups was increasing at this time:
Mr. Loyola: Our government promised to make work fairer by improving the income of those who work for minimum wage, and work should pay enough so that people can take care of their families. Our government ran on the promise to raise Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. We have not strayed rom that target. However, we fully recognize the current economic realities, as we all do, in taking a gradual approach in order to allow room for economic recovery and to carefully consider all input regarding the process of achieving that goal. (2015.05.09, 850-85)
Government MLAs also began attacking opposition’ MLAs when they criticized minimum-wage increases.
Ms. Notley: …The fact of the matter is that when the price of oil was a hundred dollars a barrel and our economy was on fire, these folks were also against raising the minimum wage. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care about the people who are very vulnerable, whose lives and family are suffering as a result of a very, very low minimum wage, one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. It is abysmal. We will move forward because raising the minimum wage will stimulate the economy, it will ensure greater equality and it will reduce poverty. Those are the things we care about. (2016.06.02, 1447)
While instrumental rationalization continued in 2017, it was slowly displaced as the key government discursive strategy by moral evaluation, which moved from the least- to most-used discursive strategy between 2015 and 2018. Moral evaluation legitimized minimum-wage increases by linking them to a specific discourse of values. The main narrative used to morally justify increases centered on how increases helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families.

In 2015, government MLAs most frequently operationalized vulnerable Albertans as single mothers and the underlying value justifying increases was one of fairness:
Ms. Notley: …Mr. Speaker, it comes down to this. The folks over there think it’s totally appropriate for a single mother of two or three to have to work 70 hours a week in order to earn a living wage. I say to you that they’re just wrong, and that’s why we are changing the minimum wage in Alberta. (2015.06.24, 231)
In 2016, opposition to phased-in minimum wage increases was coalescing. While the broad narrative of “helping the vulnerable” remained constant, government MLAs routinely linked increasing the minimum wage to reducing workers’ reliance upon food banks and the spectre of homelessness by increasing workers’ economic security. This tapped into the value of dignity:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (2016.04.21, 739)
This narrative remained stable after 2016 with some expansion of vulnerable Albertans to include persons with disabilities and new Canadians. During this time period, moral evaluation became the main discursive strategy used by government MLAs.

The final discursive strategy utilized by government MLAs is public authorization Public authorization is an assertion that one is acting on behalf of a group (in this case, all Albertans). The strong mandate secured by government in the 2015 makes this strategy a natural one for government MLAs to utilize. In the dataset, public authorization was used heavily in 2015, when it was represented 30.6% of the discursive strategies used. Government MLAs referenced the government’s mandate and its efforts to engage with interest groups (e.g., small business) in equal measure.
Ms. Sigurdson: …Our government promised in the election that we were going to make work fair in Alberta, and that’s what we’re doing We’re raising the minimum wage and making it more fair for Albertans. We’re working with small business. We are still a great place for small business to run in Alberta. We have some of the lowest tax rates here in Alberta and it’s a great place to grow business. (2015.11.17, 500)
As opponents of minimum-wage increases organized, government MLAs increasingly emphasized public authorization stemming from ongoing consultation with the public and the business community.
Ms. Gray: …As we committed to previously, we will be listening to employers and employees on how to move forward with the changes to minimum wage. Focused consultations will be held over the next month with key stakeholders, including employers, social services agencies and the low-income earners themselves. …We want to take the time to listen to the people directly involved while making sure that we are taking care of Alberta families (2016.05.19, 1059).
Public authorization continued to be important in 2016, comprising 33.9% of statements. Its use declined in 2017 and 2018.

Overall, the clear trend is that, while public authorization and instrumental rationalization were important discursive strategies in 2015 and 2016, over time, moral evaluation became the dominant discursive strategy used by government MLAs. Both instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation employed a narrative that emphasized how raising the minimum wage helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families. The instrumental rationalization strategy asserted this as a fact while the moral evaluation strategy asserted it as a desirable value.

It is unclear what factor(s) caused this shift in discursive strategy. I suspect that internal government polling identified moral evaluation (or the narratives linked to it) were being well received. Accessing such polling is on my to-do list for this autumn. Next week: The narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs.

-- Bob Barnetson

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