The 1960s backlash over the minimum wage

Fifty-five years ago, Ontario’s Conservative government introduced minimum-wage legislation — and businesses weren’t happy then, either
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on January 22, 2018
a health inspector and chef during restaurant inspection in the 1960s
A health inspector visits a restaurant in Weston in the 1960s. (City of Toronto Archives)

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​When the provincial government introduced hourly minimum-wage legislation in 1963, opponents of the move predicted doomsday scenarios. Diners going under. Staffing reductions. Costs passed on to consumers. Implementation of minimum tabs. And, worst of all, the demise of the 10-cent cup of coffee, a staple since the Second World War. “After all,” Dalton Waller, president of the Canadian Restaurant Association, observed in an interview with the Toronto Daily Star, “this is an industry that takes in many unskilled people, folks who don’t speak the Queen’s English or any English.” Waller also warned: “You start paying it to the fellow who does menial tasks and pretty soon everyone above him feels they ought to get more too.”

The previous year, the Star had investigated low wages in Ontario restaurants. Workers were generally paid between 55 and 73 cents an hour, but the newspaper reported that “a majority of restaurant owners say their employees aren’t even worth that.” The most exploited were male immigrants — the Star highlighted the example of one Hungarian cook in Toronto who earned $35 for a 91-hour week.

Organized labour, the media, and the opposition at Queen’s Park called on the Conservative government to implement an hourly minimum wage. While female workers (apart from domestics and farm labourers) had had a set weekly minimum since the early 1920s, males negotiated rates with employers via the Industrial Standards Act. Benefits such as paid vacations, 48-hour work weeks, and a framework for pay equity were added over time, but in the early 1960s, Ontario was one of only three provinces to lack a minimum wage for men.

Proponents of a minimum wage suggested a $1.25 hourly rate, which was based on what was being implemented across the United States. That rate was higher than those in other provinces, which in 1962 ranged from 50 cents in Newfoundland to 75 cents in British Columbia. The Canadian Labour Congress pointed to an American Senate committee’s view on the effects of failing to protect low-wage earners: “The burden falls on the community and its relief rolls, and the community also bears the incalculable cost of the waste of human resources, loss of human dignity and the intolerable social and economic evils that prey upon the underpaid worker, his family, his children and upon his neighbourhood.”

On March 26, 1963, Minister of Labour Leslie Rowntree announced amendments to the Minimum Wage Act. The initial hourly rates would be 85 cents for women, $1 for most males, and $1.25 for construction workers. In the hospitality sector, tips would not count as wages. The new policy would be implemented in the Golden Horseshoe in June 1963; if it was deemed a success, it would then be rolled out across the rest of the province.

a newspaper ad for minimum wageWhile minimum-wage proponents saw the move as a good first step, they criticized the low rate and the delay of full implementation. They also voiced concerns about pay equity; when the final rates were revealed in early June, women were placed on a phased schedule that would bring them up to $1 by March 1964. Restaurants could deduct a maximum of $10/week for employee meals, and could not make deductions for uniforms.

Opponents predicted an economic catastrophe. Globe and Mail business columnist Fraser Robertson believed the new wage requirement would stunt competition and reward incompetent employees. Pharmacists railed against wages to bike delivery boys, whose salaries nearly doubled in some cases (a move that led some businesses to switch to motorized deliveries). When a Salvation Army colonel pointed out at the annual meeting of the Provincial Council of Women that men deserved a higher wage because they were often married and had a household to support, a doctor shouted back, “Plenty of single women have dependents.”

Those in the restaurant industry had mixed feelings. In an interview with Canadian Hotel Review and Restaurant in June 1963, Waller indicated that the Canadian Restaurant Association favoured the $1 rate. “Basic thinking is that it will help eliminate a lot of the fringe operators who create 75% of our bad name,” he observed. Referring to the businesses that exploited immigrant workers, Waller stated, “These operators will have to pull up their socks or get out.”

In several cities, restaurateurs met to discuss the cost of a cup of coffee. Within two months of the implementation of the minimum wage, up to half had raised their price to 15 cents a cup. Some, like the Murray’s chain in Toronto, softened the blow by offering a second cup for free with a food purchase. There was backlash from customers in areas outside the minimum-wage zone against those taking advantage of the opportunity to charge higher prices: a 35 per cent loss in sales in Brantford caused a reversion to the 10-cent cup. In Barrie, restaurant owners got together and decided to raise their coffee prices. After business suffered, they conferred again, and proposed a five-cent cup to bring back customers — only one restaurant owner, though, followed through. Some people saw no point in an increase. “Using the price of sugar, which has gone up, increased wages or overhead,” noted Renfrew-based restaurateur Howard Haramis, “is pure poppycock.”

Throughout the rest of 1963, government officials sent mixed messages about raising the minimum wage outside the Golden Horseshoe. During the provincial election campaign, Premier John Robarts had said that the minimum wage would benefit some parts of Ontario and hurt others. Rowntree remained tight-lipped about a further rollout, while other Ministry of Labour officials predicted it would be implemented by April 1964. Many politicians and business owners feared that the move would increase unemployment and decrease Ontario’s competitive edge over other provinces.

The suspense ended on April 29, 1964, when it was announced that phased increases in the minimum wage would bring everyone up to the established minimum rates by December 1965. More inspectors were hired to ensure that the minimum wage was being implemented — in July and August 1964 alone, more than $20,000 was collected from employers who’d short-changed their workers.

The phased rollout, along with continuing exemptions for domestics and farm labourers, was still too cautious for some. “This is a promising beginning, but it is no more than that,” the Globe and Mail observed. One Star editorial, addressing fears that businesses would leave Ontario, declared that “if a business really depends on low wages to survive, it would hardly make any difference whether the minimum standards went into effect this year or next.” The Windsor Star noted that some of the businesses that were up in arms “have been paying abnormally low rates deliberately, in their greed for profits.”

Half a century on, similar arguments for and against a rising minimum wage echo in current debates over the recent increase in Ontario — as do concerns about a cup of coffee and those who serve it.

Sources: the June 15, 1963 and August 15, 1963 editions of Canadian Hotel Review and Restaurant; the March 27, 1963, April 3, 1963, May 16, 1963, June 8, 1963, and April 30, 1964 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 10, 1963 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the February 24, 1962, September 12, 1962, March 27, 1963, June 10, 1963, January 18, 1964, and April 30, 1964 editions of the Toronto Daily Star; and the May 1, 1964 edition of the Windsor Star.

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters. 


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