How can the idea of the ‘living wage’ be a winning philosophy, based as it is on charitable statisticians and the voluntary agreement of employers?
November has seen much debate about pay: fair pay; living wage pay; national minimum wage; pay freeze; breaking the pay freeze; employer/director pay; bankers’ bonuses. You could substitute 2012 for 1912 or 1812: the same arguments and positions of employers and workers remain fundamentally the same at any time during the past two hundred years.
November launched the “Living wage campaign week”, fronted by the Labour Party and Unison. The hourly living wage in London was lifted from £8.30p to £8.55p. Outside of London the figure is £7.45p an hour.
The whole philosophy behind the living wage is that it gives just enough to workers to lift them out of the poverty trap, and lift the basic wage rate above the state national minimum wage for adults (which is £6.19p). A fine philosophy – but how can it be a winning philosophy, based as it is on charitable statisticians and the voluntary agreement of employers?
The number of workers covered by the London Living Wage is still only 11,500, after the original launching of the campaign in 2005. Two hundred companies are involved in the scheme, which allows them to be accredited by the Living Wage Foundation.
Boris Johnson, Tory Mayor of London, announced the uplift in the living wage, yet no Tory council in Britain subscribes to it. The company KPMG subscribes to it but only to try and detract from the obscenity of billions in bonuses paid out to bankers in London’s banking centre of Canary Wharf, where the company is sited.
The living wage is the benchmark for the Tory press “campaign” to address unemployment among tens of thousands of Londoners aged between 18 and 25 years – a propaganda exercise which has seen fewer than a thousand “employment opportunities”, as distinct from permanent jobs, created.
There is no bargaining around the living wage. Trade union campaigning and organising is reduced to the Oliver Twist begging bowl approach – “Please, sir, can we have some more?” – and to “community” pressure groups, religious organisations, do-gooders, everybody without a clear class analysis and understanding that we are workers, we create wealth, we fight for our share.
The living wage recognises out of ignorance and accident what every Marxist economist has always argued: that capitalism will pay the minimum to keep its wage slaves alive and capable of purchasing the necessities of everyday life. No worker is going to get fat on the living wage. The analysis of workers’ incomes on the national minimum wage or living wage rates is largely related to their second, third, fourth jobs. Poverty and desperation. Five million workers are paid less than the living wage in Britain – 1 in 6 of the workforce.
There are twin dangers with the trade unions having only a one-size-fits-all approach to wage demands. Either this establishes wage rates as a minimum (the national minimum rate for just about all, rather than the minimum as a safety net for disorganised or badly organised workers). Or it creates a phoney higher living wage rate, caught between a minimum and a slightly higher ceiling.
Worse, it leads to the undercutting of established national wage rates and agreements. The trade unions have no role to play if they have surrendered pay bargaining. Every company which signs up to the living wage will say to its low-paid workforce, “Why pay union subscriptions when we will look after you and save you that weekly or monthly subscription as part of your pittance wages?”
The Labour Party’s commitment to a living wage or fair pay born of cynicism: essentially, they do not want pay fights or disruption. The do-gooder charitable mind-set of “we will dole out the pittance you can survive on” has permeated social democratic thinking since the Labour Party was founded. Workers’ acceptance that it is better for someone else to hand out the benefits rather than fight for them ourselves, has become ingrained.
Unless we challenge this acceptance, what future do trade unions have? If the combination of workers is not about collectively struggling for improvements in pay and terms and conditions, then what is it for?
Fair pay as opposed to unfair pay? In the past 12 months there has been an average increase of 49 per cent in the pay of directors of FTSE 100 companies, according to Incomes Data Services. Workers in the public sector, more than 6 million, have seen wage freezes, wage cuts, and downgrading or restructuring which have cut wages and the ability to earn. The Office for National Statistics estimates that national income per head has fallen by 13 per cent since 2008.
The difference between employers’ takings and workers’ wages widens with every passing day. And yet we still witter about a “fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”. All the heart-rending arguments about fair pay, low pay, living wage pay and so on and the patronising attitude towards the “little folk” and winning over the employers to fairness, decency and reasonableness – all these miss the point as to how this section of the class is organised.
Why are the trade unions either marginalised around these issues or chasing the coat tails of organisations importing US community-style organising, such as the Movement for Change, campaigns which are not about class organisation but pressure group and religion-driven campaigning? So instead of low pay campaigns, why not an older traditional simple solution – join the union and fight for wages.
Is the campaign for fair pay or living wages going to break the pay freeze in the public sector? The unions can claim a victory if they can lift 200,000 NHS workers who are on Band One under Agenda for Change to the living wage. But analysis of wage rates in London indicates that no health worker – other than in a minority of private contractors – earns less than £8.55p. Any claims of campaign success are no more than smoke and mirrors.
Large sections of the public sector workforce are not involved in the issue of wages. They may earn more, they may be privatised, they may see the employer breaking away from national agreements and trying to move to localised or regional bargaining as epitomised in local authorities across Britain or in NHS employer cartels such as in the South West, Yorkshire and Humberside, and the North West.
It is correct for the trade unions to campaign to break the pay freeze in health for the past two years, in local government for the past three years, longer in the fire service, ditto in the Civil Service. But here has been rhetoric and stunts, and shadow boxing as opposed to hard discussions in the workplace about what can be done.
How seriously can certain public sector unions be taken when “tweet marathons” are organised to tweet to the world how poor our pay is and how badly we are done to? No wonder ministers can sneer about public sector workers being paid to do nothing other than whinge.
Surveys indicate that workers are desperate to keep their jobs; terms and conditions and wages are being sacrificed to preserve employment. This is an old conundrum: when under attack we retreat, but in that retreat we retain organisation, we recruit new members to take the fight forward when we can. And we learn the lessons.
That is not happening at the present. Wage claims are lodged for substantial increases and the employer responds: yes, by all means they’ll talk about increases, but at our cost. They’ll make us pay for them by attacking sickness schemes, national agreements, various allowances and anything else they think they can get away with.
Using collective organised strength, we have over decades driven forward and secured benefits and wages. Now we are under the most sustained attack, aimed at fragmenting the workforce, individualising every job and splintering every workplace, undermining everything which historically has given us strength, collectivity, cohesion, identity.
So if we are to develop a pay strategy we should look at key questions: Where is our army – our organised unionised workplaces? How can we maximise involvement of our army? How to fight on different fronts and with different levels of understanding at the same time? Are the trade unions going to be able to rise and develop a strategy involving multiple employers, myriad workplaces, conflicting demands and aggressive employers backed by the most reactionary government in recent years all at the same time, all now?
Or will it be tick-box exercises, one-size-fits-all, pedestrian and let’s wait until the next (neoliberal) Labour government is returned on policies of fairness, decency, pro-business and us knowing our place? Or are we going to do something else?
To fight locally means our organisation in the workplace has to be paramount. It means that union density and what is understood by being a member has to change. Membership comes with responsibility and commitment, not just an insurance policy or user mentality. If you want fairness and respect in the workplace then get organised to win them.
As Workers has detailed on many occasions, the fight for wages is a fight for power in the workplace, a fight for class organisation and dignity. No one gave it to us in the past, no one is going to give it to us now or tomorrow. It’s up to us to take it. ■