The Power of the Public Sector

A keynote delivered at the Living Wage Forum on Friday, February 23, 2018 in Burlington by Atkinson’s Colette Murphy. This event was convened by the Ontario Living Wage Network.

Thank you for inviting me to pick up the conversation where David Watson left off last night. Like UNISON Scotland, the Atkinson Foundation knows inequality is a political choice and not a natural condition. We look to leaders in every sector like David who have made the choice to get behind the people who are suffering the most from the politics of austerity. There are enough of us now that we can think of ourselves as a global movement. A movement known by different names in different countries but pursuing a shared goal: making the economy work for everyone — no exceptions.

I’ve been asked to respond to a question this morning: “Why target the public sector?” But I suspect you already know the answer. Why do public sector employers belong in the living wage movement?

Is it the legislative authority and policymaking power to make binding decisions that can instantly improve or harm the lives of millions?

Or is it the power to direct — and redirect — billions of dollars in the supply chains of municipalities, schools, hospitals and other institutions toward employers who provide a living wage?

Is it the power the sector has to raise the wage floor of its own workers?

Or is it the power to drive local economic development, and provide services that open or close doors to opportunity?

We target the public sector because it’s powerful. Inside the living wage movement, the sector has the potential to lift whole neighbourhoods out of poverty. Left on the outside, its’ systems and structures can turn poverty into a chronic, inter-generational condition. But perhaps most importantly, we target the public sector because its function in society is to name our collective ambitions, and to look out for and represent all of us while pursuing them.

What we sometimes forget is that people – residents and voters like you and me – give legitimacy to the sector’s power with our votes, our tax dollars and our compliance. There are political representatives and public servants who recognize their personal stake in how the sector wields power. And that’s why it’s so important to invite them to join this movement as full participants.

I bet councillors Pam Wolf, Donna Reid and their four colleagues thought of themselves this way when they cast their votes to make Cambridge Ontario’s first living wage city in 2015. They had a choice as did the single councillor who voted against the motion. It was, admittedly, the first of many choices their council will have to make in moving their city along the path to a living wage and a more inclusive economy. But the record will show that these six councillors put their weight on the side that believes “work should bring the dignity of a decent wage — enough to keep a family out of poverty and debt.”

As living wage activists, you have the chance to get in front of public sector leaders and set this long string of choices in motion. Unless someone asks them to participate and makes the moral and economic case, they may not even know the full scope of their power and how they can use it for the greatest good. What begins as an appeal for wage fairness or a call to reduce poverty invariably leads to a much bigger conversation about our current economic model — how its broken and what we can do together to rebuild it.

Matthew Brown, a city councillor from the town of Preston in Lancashire, comes to mind as an example of an elected official who is on this path. His municipality became the first Living Wage employer in the north of England in 2012.

Six years later, a credit union has been set up to compete with payday loans companies. Six large public institutions have been persuaded to commit to buying goods or services locally wherever possible. Worker cooperatives have been set up to provide goods and services to these institutions. In 2013, they spent £38m in Preston and £292m in all of Lancashire. By 2017 these had increased to £111m and £486m respectively despite an overall reduction in the town council’s budget.

Matthew was interviewed last month for the Guardian newspaper’s podcast The Alternatives about the remarkable progress his hometown has made in shaping their local economy since the crash of 2008. You won’t want to miss it.

While councillors like Matthew are key leaders, results like these are not possible without public servants like Denise Andrea Campbell. She played a lead role in the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy in recent years. The overall strategy includes championing a living wage standard across Toronto, giving preference to vendors providing goods and services to the City who pay a living wage, implementing a social procurement policy as well as designing a community benefit program for capital investments and other tools for equitable economic development.

Even with all the power of the public purse at their disposal, Matthew and Denise Andrea will tell you that they would not have been able to move strategies and policies forward inside government without a well-informed and well-organized base of residents and workers pressing for change outside. That’s where community organizers like Alejandra Bravo come in.

Alejandra is the Broadbent Institute’s Director of Leadership and Training. She’s been working to embed the idea of community benefits in the public infrastructure development process since before the Government of Ontario introduced the Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act in 2014. But since then, she’s been instrumental in supporting emerging community-labour networks in seven Canadian cities focused on the local economic opportunities created by historic public infrastructure spends.

Alejandra was three years old when her family came to Canada from Chile after the coup. She’s always been a political activist, she says, but the real shift for her happened when she became a mother. She got involved in her children’s school, fought against provincial education cuts, and began making deputations at City Hall.

Now, decades later, she works tirelessly to create space for people who are persistently excluded from the democratic process. In almost nine years of work for the Maytree Foundation, as a candidate for municipal office, and now with the Broadbent Institute, she has dedicated herself to mentoring authentic leaders, and to facilitating the discovery of their power to shape their communities, their local economies and this country.

And this is exactly what we’ve asked her to do as the facilitator of a special initiative we’re launching this year. It’s aimed at developing a new generation of community organizers and incubating innovative community benefits strategies tied to capital development projects. At the same time, these leaders will learn from each other and a global network of collaborators about how to meet the challenges presented by disruptive technology and polarizing politics. They will be focused on organizing:

  • workers of colour who are precariously employed in the service sector and other sectors with low union density;
  • communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, located in de-industrialized areas that are under-served by transit and other public services; and,
  • political jurisdictions characterized by low voter turnout, limited impact on public policy and civic debates through democratic channels, and limited access to political parties, government and the media.

This new leadership action-learning initiative will measure its success in material gains for low-income communities project by project. So, its primary goal is building the democratic and economic power needed to propose solutions and oppose those who are not willing to make space for others at decision-making tables. You can expect a playbook on community benefits organizing rooted in real-time experience to come out of this initiative. Keep your eye on Atkinson’s website for more details in the weeks ahead.

You know, when Tom Cooper, Greg deGroot-Maggetti, and Trish Hennessy invited Atkinson into the conversation about a living wage in 2014, we had been fighting poverty for every single one of our 72 years. We were worried that we had lost more ground than we had gained, but we were not discouraged. We decided it was time to give more oxygen to solutions like decent work than problems like precarious employment. We stopped asking ourselves what makes a community poor and started asking what makes it prosperous. While we were already deeply embroiled in the fight for a higher minimum wage, we could see how the case for a living wage would help build an even bigger, stronger and more diverse base of decent work activists.

Tom, Greg, Trish and many of you have already delivered on this promise with your exceptional organizing efforts on Bill 148: Fairer Workplaces, Better Jobs Act last year. Living wage employers formed the core of the Better Way to Build an Economy Alliance — a David who was more than able to confront the Goliath of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce during this protracted fight for $15.

It’s good to see Damien, Helmi and other employers who were part of this massive effort here today. You are the proof that living wage activists can help win material gains for low-wage workers by asking public sector leaders to use all their power, not only their power as employers, to tackle inequality.

Now more than ever, we must harness the full power and potential of the public sector as a true partner. And that means we have to think of ourselves as citizens and investors who can use democratic and economic tools to build our local economies from the ground up. We have to spend less time calculating the living wage for each community and more time organizing leaders in every sector to align visions, values, agendas and strategies for decent work. We have to bring movements that began around specific ideas or strategies together to become big enough to break through the noise with a compelling alternative to the status quo.

If we continue to think of ourselves as consumers, stakeholders and petitioners — and let public sector leaders treat us that way — we can expect more of the same: local economic development strategies that depend on attracting outside investment by lowering taxes and wages, and creating rewards and benefits for the usual suspects. As economist Marianna Mazzucato says, “socializing risk and privatizing returns.”

The traditional approach to local economic development may be based on a zero sum game in which some people win and others lose, but we know there is another approach based on a positive sum game in which no one wins at someone else’s expense.

We know it’s possible because the results are coming in from cities like Cambridge, Preston, Cleveland and Toronto. Slowly at first. Then several steps forward on minimum wage and living wage strategies. A breakthrough with the idea of community benefits. Renewed interest in worker cooperatives and other forms of collective ownership. And on it goes.

Different strategies take hold for different reasons in different places, but the fact remains that many more people are getting organized to take back their communities from interests that would deny them decent work and decent lives. The base is getting bigger and the scope of the movement stronger every day.

In every case, however, the process begins with an invitation from one person who can no longer conspire with forces that diminish them and weaken their community – a person who is ready to use whatever power they possess to affect change. The invitation is extended to another person who may care about the same things and may be ready to act – or may not – but we will never know if we never ask.

I have American writer Meg Wheatley’s words pinned to the bulletin board in my office to remind me how to get started on a path that restores hope and leads to a worthy destination.

She describes it this way: “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask ‘what’s possible?’ not ‘what’s wrong?’ Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.”

Thank you for starting a surprising conversation with Atkinson back in 2014 and for inviting me to start one with you this morning. I look forward to hearing what comes from the connections made today and the action we take together in the days ahead.