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LANA PAYNE: The class war rages on

['Sparkling wine sales usually spike this time of year and these days there are more choices than something with “Champagne” on the label. <br />— Photo by']
A champagne-lifestyle tweet has landed Rocco Rossi, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, in hot water. Photo by']

The class-war veil slipped — perhaps aided by the bubbles from the $75-a-bottle French champagne and accompanying caviar.

Rocco Rossi felt the wrath of Twitter on the first couple of days of 2019 and, well, he really deserved it.

On New Year’s Eve he tweeted a few pictures of expensive champagne and caviar with the line: “Celebrating New Year’s Eve the 1-percenter way! Let them eat cake.”

I know, I had to read it twice, too.

Rocco Rossi is the president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. His was among the loudest voices against modern labour laws in the province, encompassed in Bill 148. The legislation also provided for increases in the minimum wage.

Last fall, Premier Doug Ford granted Rossi and the business lobby organization their wish. He rolled back a number of improvements, including a scheduled pay increase of $1 an hour for hundreds of thousands of lower-waged workers and two paid sick days.

The Rossi statement shocked and appalled many people who found it offensive, smug, tone-deaf and mean-spirited — and those were the nice things people had to say.

The fact that minimum-wage workers were supposed to get a pay raise on New Year’s Day fueled the outrage over Rossi’s odious tweet, which he apologized for a day later — after the pile-on and likely after he started getting media calls.

His apology: “I sent out a tweet on New Year’s Eve that was meant to be satirical but in retrospect was insensitive and caused offence. I sincerely apologize for the tweet as it was never intended to offend.”


Seriously? Satire.

Rossi might as well have asked, are there no workhouses?

Entitlement and classism are usually a little more subtle, hidden behind those so-called “economic theories” of free markets, merit and competition.

But every now and then, the veil slips and reminds us that the class war is far from over. As one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett, once said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Winning all the way to the bank.

A day after Rossi’s outrageous “let them eat cake” statement, the annual report from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives (CCPA) on top CEO pay served up another reminder about the rich and the rest of us.

For the last 12 years, the think tank has been tracking CEO pay — salaries, bonuses, stock options.

The conclusion: the trend is clear — the gap between CEOs and the rest continues to widen. In 2017, according to the report’s data, the average CEO made 197 times what the average worker earned; 197 times or about $10 million a year (on average.)

That’s compared to 85 times in 1995, according to a report published in The Globe and Mail and courtesy of business economist Armine Yalnizyan, who noted, “Decent work if you can get it.” (Rossi should take note: this is satire that works.)

What’s interesting is that base salaries for CEOs are not growing that much. Rather it’s what is known as “variable pay” where the biggest gains are being made — this includes bonus pay, stock options, capital gains. It’s also where the most “lavish” tax breaks are available, according to the CCPA report by economist David Macdonald. About 77 per cent of CEO compensation comes in the form of variable pay.

Yep. Decent work if you can get it.

Macdonald notes “there is good reason to equalize the tax treatment on all executive pay, whether it comes in the form of cash, stocks, or capital gains either on awarded stock or the exercise of stock options. All of these should be taxed as income in the same way they are for employees who don’t work in the C-suite. It’s unlikely that this would curb extreme CEO pay completely, but it would at least stop providing tax breaks for it.”

The CCPA, through its Alternative Federal Budget, has advocated for closing tax loopholes, noting by doing so the government would increase revenues by about $18 billion annually without increasing taxes for the vast majority of Canadians.

The government would achieve two things by eliminating tax loopholes: increase revenues, and reduce inequality by redistributing wealth and investing in things like post-secondary education, making it free or at least more affordable.

But politically taking on tax fairness requires courage. And that kind of courage is in short supply.

Instead, the war on low-wage workers continues, as does the one on taxes for the wealthy.

Rossi’s deleted tweet is a smug reminder that it may be 2019, but the class war rages on.

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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