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Tim Hortons brew-haha shows fast-food industry doesn't get PR, economics, or what Canadians think

Kathleen Wynne (Photo: David Climenhaga)

Having quite possibly won the next Ontario general election for Premier Kathleen Wynne and her admittedly long-in-the-tooth Liberal government, the association of perpetually infuriated rogue Tim Hortons franchisees half-heartedly tried to walk back last week's plan to beat the crap out of their employees because the government had raised the minimum wage in the province to $14 an hour.

No, no, the Great White North Franchisee Association said Friday in hopes of getting the dust to settle a little, "Tim Hortons team members should never be used to further an agenda or be treated as just an 'expense.' This is completely unacceptable."

Better late than never to come to this realization, I guess. But the whole brew-haha demonstrates how Canada's fast food industry doesn't really get it about Public Relations best practices, or for that matter Economics 101 and the mood of Canadians.

The threats and complaints about increases in the minimum wage taking place in many provinces are not just an Ontario phenomenon. I expect soon enough we'll be seeing some of the same petty bullying that cropped up among members of the franchisees' group in Ontario -- forcing employees to buy their own uniforms, no more paid breaks, and a spiteful end to insignificant perks like a free cup of crappy coffee at the end of a shift -- here in Alberta.

Still, the Ontario Hortons franchisees' foray from retail coffee and donuts into retail politics was so egregiously ham handed, and Premier Wynn's response to it so defiantly pitch perfect, that the damage they've done to whatever objectives they'd hoped to achieve is probably irreparable -- which, from the perspective of making Canada a better country for its citizens, is a good thing.

Indeed, it took a swift and harsh disavowal of "the actions of a reckless few" by Restaurant Brands International, the Brazilian-owned corporation that franchises the apostrophe-free Tim Hortons brand, to head off what could have turned into a national boycott of the company's hitherto iconic coast-to-coast coffee shops.

The brewing trouble first made the news when a franchise in Cobourg, Ont., owned by the daughter of the late Tim Horton himself and the son of the chain's other founder, sent a letter to its employees telling them they'd be losing paid breaks and other incentives because the government had raised the minimum wage and the corporate head office wouldn't let them raise prices.

"A 9 hour shift will be paid for 8 hours and 20 minutes," the employees were churlishly advised in the letter. They were told they'd have to sign a pledge saying they agreed.

This brain-dead rebellion soon spread to other Ontario franchises, whose owners had apparently concluded this would show Premier Wynne and RBI's head office honchos a thing or two.

Wynne's response took it directly back to one of the Coburg owners, Ron Joyce Jr., who, as the premier reminded Ontarians, is "a man whose family founded the Tim Hortons chain, which was sold for billions of dollars."

"I'll be blunt. It is the act of a bully. If Mr. Joyce wants to pick a fight, I urge him to pick it with me and not those working the pickup window and service counter of his stores." Premier Wynne must have been fighting to suppress a smirk when she said that, whether or not she cared that Joyce didn't personally pocket the $12.5 billion paid for Hortons by its Brazilian owners in 2014. (Dear Old Dad, Ron Sr., it's worth noting, is officially a billionaire.)

Ontarians everywhere -- and lots of Canadians elsewhere too -- muttered, "You go, Premier!"

At this point, I'd bet you the cost an overpriced can of Tim Hortons ground coffee that despite all the grunge thrown at her in the past couple of years, Wynne can cruise to victory on this performance. Just watch, it won't be hard for her to tie the bullying opposition to the minimum-wage increase to the would-be bullies of the Conservative Opposition in Queen's Park.

But if the Ontario Hortons franchisees don't understand the fundamentals of Public Relations -- you know, making it sound as if you're doing it for the people you're trying to persuade, not your own sweet selves -- Canada's small but potent network of AstroTurf organizations that lobby tirelessly against improvements in minimum wages certainly does.

So the good news last week for enemies of the widespread move by provinces toward a $15 minimum wage in Canada was that mainstream media took the lobby's bait on a recent Bank of Canada research note on the impact of higher minimum wages hook, line and sinker.

The actual Bank of Canada note concluded that, for working Canadians, the benefits of increased minimum wages outweigh any depressant effect they might have on job creation. The headlines almost universally concentrated on the depressant effect, and left the impression the note had said a minimum wage increase would cause 60,000 existing jobs to be cut, which it emphatically did not.

"This is not the first time the media have gotten worked up about the wrong numbers," observed Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyst Michal Rozworski in a thoughtful commentary on how the note was reported and what it actually said. "This is only one example of a recurring pattern of business-friendly bias in the media."

Here in Alberta, of course, United Conservative Party spinners used their usual pretzel logic to try to twist this technical debate into an attack on unions -- since they've been criticized for advocating policies that would result in the elimination of thousands of actual, existing jobs held by taxpaying Albertans, some of whom are union members.

But the restaurant lobby, as a number of observers noted, has been strangely quiet lately hereabouts.

The explanation for that is probably simple: Canada's professional anti-union, pro-temporary-foreign-worker, anti-minimum-wage lobby -- despite its powerful voice, amplified many times by the friendly media echo chamber noted by Rozworski -- is actually made up of a very small group of people.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, the Merit Contractors Association, "Working Canadians," and the Canadian Labour Watch Association -- often led by the same people in multiple board and executive roles.

With limited human resources, they have to concentrate their fire where the fight is most intense. And with several provinces moving toward a $15 minimum wage at once, that means they are likely experiencing a shortage of qualified and ideologically certified propagandists to carry on the battle.

Right now that's in Ontario. It'll be back to Alberta next fall when the minimum wage here is scheduled by our NDP government to reach $15 and an election will be that much closer. Next, presumably, the campaign will move to provinces like B.C., which have scheduled that benchmark to be reached down the line.

The economics won't change. A $15 minimum wage, especially if it is tied to a cost-of-living index, will benefit working people and society in general in every province.

And the threats, misleading claims and whining -- especially by the fast-food industry -- will never abate, no matter how many times their dire predictions don't come true.

This post also appearsnon David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo credit: David Climenhaga

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