Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Living Wage

At the recent congress, the TUC and the Fair Pay Network published a report entitled ‘Unfinished Business: The quest for a Living Wage’. The report outlines the experiences of several living wage campaigns, from RMT member cleaners on the Eurostar to a Methodist minister. Local Living wage campaigns have sprung up in many cities including Manchester, Glasgow, London and Norwich. The endorsement of the Living Wage by Ed Miliband caused a storm among some Business leaders. Even David Cameron has described the Living Wage as an idea ‘that’s time has come’. It appears everyone is talking about the Living Wage.

Everyone who is paid minimum wage knows how hard it is to get by. You struggle to cover the rent, shopping, electric and heating bills despite working long hours. Many people in this situation are reliant on in-work benefits. We have seen the re-emergence of the concept of an ‘undeserving poor’ propagated by politicians such as multi-millionaire Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who recently argued that poor families should not have children in order to save the state money. However, these myths ignore the fact that the majority of children living in poverty have at least one working parent. Paid work should provide you with everything you need to live a decent life, yet for so many working people this is not happening.

The concept of a Living Wage is the minimum amount of money needed to live a well rounded life. The concept appears to have come from the USA where momentum has been building behind this campaign for several years. The first modern example of a Living Wage campaign began in 1994 when an alliance between trade unionists and religious leaders in Baltimore launched a successful campaign requiring city service contractors to pay a living wage. Subsequently hundreds of campaigns, encouraged by President Obama’s support for a higher minimum wage, are currently ongoing or have resulted in living wage laws being implemented.

The experience of the Living Wage campaign in the USA provides us with some lessons that we can use to improve the campaign in this country. The campaigns were most successful when they incorporated religious and community groups into the movements that could help social justice activists and trade unionist ‘usual suspects’ to mobilise larger numbers of people. While this tactic is something to be repeated in Britain, there were some lessons learnt that we need to steer clear of. In the USA Living Wage laws typically only covered state employees and businesses that receive state assistance or have contracts with the government. The movement is also fractured and often locally based. There is no universally recognised rate of Living Wage and the local Living Wage laws that have been passed have often only been a couple of dollars higher than minimum wage.

In Britain the Living Wage Campaign appears to have the ‘big mo’ behind it at the moment with local campaigns being set up around the country and the endorsement of many senior politicians. The sense of outrage sparked by the bailout of the bankers has meant that many members of the public have got behind movements such as the Living Wage Campaign, the People’s Charter and the initiative for a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on the banks. Despite the grim announcement from the Con-Dem coalition government that working families will suffer an austerity blitzkrieg there is great potential for a progressive alternative that will see a fairer Britain emerge from this crisis.

One Strength of the British campaign is the existence of a unified rate of Living Wage with an agreed methodology of updating it. The Living Wage is currently set at £7.85 an hour in London, £7.15 an hour in Scotland, or £7.60 an hour elsewhere this is based on the ‘Minimum Income Standard’ calculated by Loughborough University's Centre for Research in Social Policy. Researchers asked a broad cross-section of society to discuss and agree what is needed for an adequate standard of living – something that people feel nobody in Britain should fall below. They then worked out how much this costs on average in the UK, based on chain store prices.
For simplicity, the figures used to calculate the hourly Living Wage rate are based an example of a typical couple working full-time, with two children in paid childcare. Whilst not all working-age households include two adults and two kids, £7.60 an hour is enough to protect 90% of working-age households living outside of London.

Another strength of the campaign is that there are arguments for the Living Wage from most viewpoints and positions in society.

Despite the complaints by leading business figures to Ed Miliband’s endorsement of the campaign it has been demonstrated that the living wage is ‘good for business’. Research has shown that paying workers a living wage increases productivity, while reducing absenteeism and the rate of staff turnover. This will decrease the amount of time and money that is needed in order to train new staff. Evidence suggests that socially responsible companies that reward their staff for their hard work are thrive better in the business world than those who do not. Companies such as Barclays and Pricewaterhousecoopers are recognised living wage employers.

For those who are concerned about the amount of money that the state spends on welfare benefits it can be argued that a Living Wage would reduce this spending. The costs paid by the taxpayer, and local community, in relation to the social problems associated with poverty and inequality are staggering. Better paid workers have more to offer for their communities and are not financially dependent upon welfare benefits. Evidence suggests that crime rates would be reduced; acts such as burglary, vandalism and alcohol and drug abuse can be combated by the simple act of paying all workers a Living Wage.

These arguments have persuaded not only business groups such as those mentioned above, but also local government, such as the Greater London Authority, and universities, such as Queen Mary’s, to adopt the Living Wage.

Church Action on Poverty (CAP) has been concerned that some churches have been paying their workers inadequately. The experience of the Living Wage campaign in the USA saw religious groups of all faiths leading the fight for a Living Wage. CAP therefore has been helping Churches lead the way in Britain by signing them up to the Living Wage. It is easy to justify this by highlighting the clear Christian values and moral responsibilities of the Church to treat their staff with respect.

"Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour God." (Proverbs 14:31)

The current National Minimum Wage is completely inadequate for working families to live off. Despite the 13 pence "pay rise" on the 1st of October, the current rate is just £5.93. While the minimum wage was arguably one of Labour's best achievements, the sluggish increases have been below the amount necessary for a decent standard of living. Furthermore, stratification by age has merely encouraged employers to pay younger workers less. The new rate for 16 and 17-year-old workers will scale the heights of £3.64 an hour and apprentices will be rewarded with just £2.50 an hour.
It is disgraceful that many workers in a nation as rich as ours cannot provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families because of low wages. The Living Wage is desperately needed. We need to challenge the faux progressivism of the coalition government and step up to fight a generation defining campaign, the campaign for a Living Wage.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Congress and the fight against the cuts

All across Europe workers have been fighting EU-imposed austerity measures. Over 10 million workers staged a general strike in Spain, following the six general strikes held by Greek workers. A recent day of action against the cuts brought over 100,000 workers from 24 countries to Brussels impressed on members of the YCL in the British contingent the need for workers across Europe to coordinate action against these devastating cuts.

Many people in Britain find themselves ill equipped to deal with government austerity measures. Access to housing, education and healthcare is already overstretched. One particularly big issue is unemployment and underemployment. The Office for National Statistics also reported that the number of people classed as economically inactive has reached a record high of 8.17 million. Young people are overrepresented in the unemployment figures and those in work are more likely to be in casualised, precarious agency or short-term contracted work.

Trade unionists came from all over the country on the 13th of September to Manchester a city whose vibrancy cut through the rain. Yet despite the sights and sounds a grim mood hangs over many inhabitants of the city. The shedding of manufacturing jobs has deeply affected the old industrial city and has been accompanied by a huge rise in poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. It could be argued that the city would be receptive to a TUC that would start the fight back against the biggest assault on working people in living memory.

The mood for a campaign against austerity was set in the backdrop of a joint statement by Unison and the PCS to campaign together to defend public services and jobs. Many developments at congress were welcome.

Delegates unanimously gave their support for John McDonnell's Private Members Bill which seeks to prevent the disgraceful practice of employers using small technicalities against democratic ballots for strike action. Court rulings have been used against overwhelmingly support for strike action from Unite’s BA cabin crew, RMT and others recently without any appreciation of the difficulties of maintaining the records of up to thousands of workers who constantly move house or job. The composite motion reaffirmed Congress' commitment to ending the harsh anti-trade union laws by standing behind the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill.
TUC delegates also pledged support for the Communication workers Union’s (CWU) campaign against the privatisation of the post office. ‘Competition equals a better, cheaper service’ is the familiar excuse for the privatisation of public services and has been used in regards to pawning off of our post service. Similar arguments were used to justify the privatisation of Britain’s railways yet we have been left with a more dangerous service that is the most expensive in Europe. The same will become true of our postal service if the Post Office is privatised, not to mention the forfeiting of thousands of postal workers’ jobs.

Another good achievement came from a motion concerning the Middle East. Congress voted for boycott and disinvestment from firms that profit from the occupation and illegal settlements in Palestine. The composite motion, which was unanimously passed, denounced the Israeli government’s attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May which resulted in the deaths of nine solidarity activists and its continuing support for illegal settlements. The motion issued an important condemnation of the reactionary Israel’s Histadrut trade union federation.

A packed Morning Star fringe meeting was held with many more people listening outside the door than were inside the room. RMT General Secretary Bob Crow defended his call for "general and co-ordinated strikes" against attacks by the mainstream media by pointing out that without civil disobedience women would not have the vote.
Conference delegates and members of Manchester CPB and YCL attended a Communist party fringe meeting at the mechanic’s institute which housed the founding meeting of the TUC in 1868. Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths forecast 2010 might be seen in future as the "class war Congress"
"Not in the sense that the TUC has declared class war but that it resolved to unite in defence of the working class against the Tories' class war," he explained.
While progress has been made on some issues more work needs to be done particularly in regards to organising resistance to the cuts. Unfortunately some negative trends distracted delegates from this.

The decision to invite David Cameron was an insult to those who will lose their jobs as a result of the coalition government’s attack on the people. The withdrawal of the invitation was no victory to celebrate it should never have been issued. Similarly it was outrageous to give a warm welcome to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, as he justifies the scrapping of people’s jobs and services.
Regrettably for the democracy of Britain’s labour movement Manchester TUC 2010 was the last annual full congress. There will be no TUC congress held next year when the brunt of the austerity measures will be unleashed.

The labour movement must be organised in order to stop the austerity measures and defeat this government. As Bob Crow, who was re-elected onto the TUC general council, has stated "the government started this fight with the working class - but we are up for it." It is paramount that a conference is organised as early as possible in order to coordinate resistance to the cuts.

Young communists must help to fight the EU imposed austerity measures in two ways;
Firstly the battle of ideas still needs to be won in rejecting rhetoric surrounding the false claim that "we're all in it together". The wealth of the top 1000 richest people in Britain rose last year by almost 30 per cent so much for universal belt-tightening. It is clear that this remedy proposed by the European Union is a naked attack on the lives of working families. Instead of austerity measures, the government could close tax havens and ensure that tax-dodging millionaires pay their share. The implementation of a wealth tax and a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on bank transactions could raise billions. More could be saved by cancelling the Trident missile replacement and bringing British troops home from the increasingly aimless war in Afghanistan.

Secondly young communists must contribute to the coordinated response to the austerity programme. We must get involved in local anti-cuts groups. It must be acknowledged that the Con-Dem government’s plans for privatisation were built upon existing labour policies, such as the Academy schools programme. Likewise, a Labour government would have introduced cuts in line with other social democratic governments in Greece and Spain. Nonetheless, in the interests of unity, the broadest possible anti-cuts campaign is required and must involve socialists, communists and trade unionists together with labour party members, dissident liberals and Tories as well as local community and religious groups.