Tuesday 19 February 2013

The Living Wage Campaign: Solidarity Or Charity?

Morality vs Cold Hard Cash: The Living Wage Campaign depends for its success upon inciting mass moral outrage against low wages. But it's not the charity of fellow citizens that low paid workers need - it's their solidarity. The restoration of universal union membership and national awards would secure a living wage for working-class Kiwis a lot faster than a campaign to mobilise the better angels of New Zealand's notoriously fickle middle-class.

“CALL UP THE CRAFTSMEN, bring me the draughtsmen, build me a path from cradle to grave. And I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage.” In just thirty-three words the English songwriter, Billy Bragg, captures the essence of the grand social bargain that became the post-war Welfare State.
What does it say, then, about New Zealand’s social and economic priorities in 2013 that “a living wage” has, once again, become something to which hundreds of thousands of working-class New Zealanders can only aspire?
When I first learned about the Living Wage Campaign I was dubious. Not, I hasten to add, about its ultimate purpose – who can dispute the sorry state of New Zealand wage-rates? No, what bothered me were the means which the promoters of the Living Wage (calculated this past week at $18.40 per hour, or $736.00, before tax, for a 40-hour week) were employing to achieve their objective.
Moral suasion is a powerful force and certainly not one to be underestimated. New Zealanders, of all people, should have no doubt about the ability of a strong moral argument to mobilise public opinion against clear and present evils. Those of us old enough to recall the turmoil in which New Zealand was engulfed during the 1981 Springbok tour will readily attest to the consequences of moral force. David Lange’s extraordinary speech to the Oxford Union bore similar testimony to the power of a well-marshalled ethical argument.
But all the 1981 protests and Mr Lange’s Oxford Union speech achieved was the exclusion of apartheid sport and nuclear weapons from New Zealand territory. They certainly did not end apartheid or nuclear weaponry. Moral suasion can only take you so far.
How far The Living Wage Campaign’s moral arguments will take it depends on how vulnerable its targeted employers are to public sentiment.
I was not surprised to learn that practically all the successes of similar initiatives overseas were achieved in the public sector. Where the ultimate employers of poorly-paid working people are local or central government politicians there is clearly room for leverage. If the electors can be persuaded to pressure candidates (like London’s Boris Johnson) into supporting a living wage for low-paid council and/or government staff, then a favourable outcome (even one that comes at the rate- and tax-payers’ ultimate expense) is highly likely.
Large monopoly suppliers of goods and services might also be persuadable. The opportunity to burnish their public image by stepping-up to the plate as good corporate citizens can easily be paid for by adding a cent or two to their prices.
In more competitive marketplaces, however, rising labour costs cannot be passed on so easily. In small to medium enterprises the sharing-out of any surplus tends to be a zero-sum game. Higher wages all-too-often mean lower profits. Moral suasion in these circumstances is unlikely to take you very far at all.
Most perplexing of all about the Living Wage Campaign is its origin in the trade union movement. It is hard to think of a more glaring admission of defeat than launching a campaign whose success is ultimately dependent on melting the hearts of the employing class. As if the events of the past three decades hadn’t supplied all the evidence a trade unionist could ever need that, when it comes to serving the shareholders (and securing their bonuses!) the employing class has no heart to melt.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the period in our recent history (the mid-1980s) when the share of national income going to the top 1 percent of income earners was at its lowest, was the very same moment at which the number of workers belonging to a trade union was at its highest.
Or, to put it more bluntly: the most effective instrument for securing a living wage for all workers is a large, strong and confident labour movement. A movement strong enough to secure the restoration of the national award system (which removes the cost of labour from the arena of inter-enterprise competition) and the return of universal union membership (which is the only way of guaranteeing a living wage for workers in the now almost entirely de-unionised service sector).
The Living Wage Campaign that I could lend my wholehearted support to would be the one which set out to explain why these two radical employment relations reforms were crucial to the reconstitution of a workforce that could enter the workplace every morning with dignity and confidence and depart every evening without fear.
It is not the pity and charity of the middle-class New Zealanders being targeted by the Living Wage Campaign that low-paid workers need – it’s their solidarity.
The only melting of hearts I have ever witnessed is when people stand and struggle together – for justice.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 February 2013.


Pete said...

There is a "shirkers vs strivers" narrative at play in New Zealand politics. The idea of the undeserving poor and the deserving poor, which is a distinction I find distasteful. But this campaign feeds into that narrative. It's a simple message: no-one who works for a living should live in poverty.

President Obama expressed a similar position when he called for an increase in the federal minimum wage in his recent State of the Union address: "Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. We should be able to get that done.

I think it stands more of a chance of success in at least convincing the public at large than broader campaigns against poverty. And maybe a little more egalitarianism will be fed into the mix.

Oliver said...

The period in which shareholders share of the wealth has peaked has also been the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China to business. I believe the shift of labour intensive work to China and Eastern Europe has done more to hold down wages than declining union membership. As low-skill jobs have shifted overseas the swelling ranks of the unemployed created additional competition for the jobs remaining and then pushed down wages. High income occupations are those where the work can not be shifted overseas AND is complex enough to exclude large chunks of the population.

The big change will happen in the next ten years. China has hit "Peak Toil". The seemingly endless pool of internal-migrant labourers is just about exhausted. Chinese wages are climbing, employees are demanding better working conditions, minimum wage laws are coming, people are finding jobs closer to their home towns and some Western companies are shifting work back home. Other countries such as Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh will soak up some of the overflow but none of these countries can delay the global shift of labour forever. In the next couple of years we can expect the impact of peak toil to start being felt. In time this will lead to higher wages in the west and higher prices for consumers as the global cost of production rises. Expect to see even greater efforts to supplant labour with technology in evermore industries.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman has been blogging about the minimum wage this week. Turns out that Tory scaremongering about the effects of raising it are largely misplaced.

But we knew that.

Anonymous said...

Chris - I think your comments re the correlation of the decline of working peoples' incomes and the decline of union membership are dead-on. And tht this needs to be rebalanced by the restoration of a strong union movement .
But how to do that? I detect very little interest amongst the working people with whom I work in strengthening the union movement - in fact, I wouldn't be the first to note pretty much outright disdain from those who would most benefit. And this is in the reasonably unionised public health workforce.
It would be a brave ( or suicidal) political party that would campaign for the restoration of compulsory union membership don't you think? Seriously.

Kokila Patel said...

There won't be any solidarity. Firstly, in previous posts, you have pointed out that people who are better off than the worst off, generally don't want their station in life crowded by those "worse off". Secondly, you can't assume someone who works for minimum wage lives in poverty anyway. I don't hear anyone assuming the small business owner should be subsidised with "living profits" so his/her family can have the guarantee of not living in poverty. Believe it or not - some people actually live on less. You only need visit retail areas outside of malls and less salubrious areas to realise this. The campaign is well meaning - but it won't convince enough people to sacrifice and risk their own (potentially meagre) livelihoods for someone who takes no risk at all

Annie said...

The purpose of the Living Wage movement is not to melt the hearts of the middle class but to build an alliance across society so that there is sufficient pressure for higher wages that businesses have no choice but to respond, in the same old fashioned way that large collectives of workers in unions have done effectively in the past. The challenge we face is that right now unions represent a small fraction of the private sector workforce no matter how hard they recruit and educate and organise. It is also true that in the last 20 years or so Labour and National governments have not created a legislative framework that supports unionisation and that the structure of the labour market means that most low paid workers are in scattered workplaces, rostered all hours of the day and night, in small groups and may see other workmates seldom during their rostered shift. Many unions are aware that the real power to increase the wages often lies not with the employer but with the client that has contracted the service or the labour hire company, or the employment agency. While workers may seldom gather in large numbers in workplaces, they do live in communities all over the city and they many attend church and have children in schools. The new movement recognises that building power means reaching into the communities where workers gather, reaching out to the organisations to which they are often most connected, such as their churches, and harnessing that power to influence decision makers. So far there is enormous support, we may or may not be successful, but if we don't do something to change the current conditions of low paid workers and their families, life in this country will continue to deteriorate. We take heart from the hundreds of thousands around the world whose lives have been transformed through living wage campaigns and hope that we can replicate that here.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks for that explanation, Annie.

I guess my fundamental point is that building support for a living wage across NZ society is a necessary but insufficient strategy if the goal is to lift the incomes of low-paid workers.

If the historical record offers us any guide it is that moral outrage - if it is intended to produce real improvements - must be linked to practical trade union organisation.

Just take a look at the campaign against sweated labour that began in Dunedin in the late 1880s. The churches preached against it. The local newspaper railed against it. But, in the end, it was only the newly-formed Tailoresses Union that was in a position to solve it.

Telling people how bad things are is not enough. The Living Wage Campaign needs to link the exposure of atrocious pay and working conditions to specific employment law reforms.

Moral exhortations eventually lose their force. It will be legislative change - leading to a significant expansion of union power - that ultimately secures working people a wage they can live on with dignity.

Charity is vertical. Solidarity is horizontal.

Anonymous said...

I remember a article you wrote Chris at the time of the formation of the C.T.U.basically saying, it was a progressive and timely amalgamation for a progressive modern trade union movement and the old school way of unionism like the dinosaurs, was over.

Since the formation of the C.T.U.and the so called modern way of progressive union bargaining "STRIKE FREE"negotiation,workers wages and working conditions have steadily gone backwards, and as the vast majority of minimum waged workers are aware if it were not for governments past and present annual minimum increment, there would be no movement of their hourly pay rate from their employers.

You are correct, it would be a brave political party or Government to re-introduce mandatory unionism,that was law in "the bad old days"of affordable living wages,legal worker redress to their working pay and conditions and their right to union membership without fear of reprisal from their employer, a fear, that on the introduction of voluntary unionism, workers in their droves opted out of the union.

Compulsory Unionism is the only way forward for the betterment of working and pay conditions for minimum and middle waged workers.

As for the present Living Wage Campaign, all strength to it,however, sadly doomed to failure, due to it being a Topic of Discussion.

Like it or not, employers need to maximize their profits to progress and look to Governments to aid this by way of favourable legislation.Employees used to look to unions, sadly only 20 odd % of the work force is unionised or should that be "union members" who!s rights of bargaining have been steadily eroded by past and present governments.

All that is new is not always best.

Chris Trotter said...

Not guilty, Danial!

Back in 1987 I was working for the Distribution Workers' Federation - many of whose members were decidedly dubious about the merits of the CTU (as was I).

I do remember writing an article about the cause of the dinosaurs' extinction - a cataclysmic exogenous event - and speculating that something similar might see off NZ's trade unions.

And I was right. Something did. It was called the Employment Contracts Act.

And the CTU did nothing to stop it.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that the Living Wage campaign is an indication of the union movement's weakness. Despite Annie's protestation to the contrary the LW campaign IS relying on moral persuasion. Unless there is another way to understand "harnessing the power (of the community) to influence decision makers"?

Rather than trying to influence the Labour Party to reintroduce compulsory unionism though, the aim of anyone interested in a renewed labour movement must be the revival of the strike, and other means of disrupting production, which is where capital draws its life and power from. Until workers start to challenge the restrictions on the right to strike in our industrial laws (left in place by the Clark Labour government) then I can see no way forward to a renewed labour movement that again can make a lasting difference to our society. The LW campaign is a start to addressing poverty wages in this country but unless it can break out of its moralistic mode then I can't see it going very far. In conjunction with the recent media focus on child poverty and the vast inequalities of wealth in this country, there is an opportunity to put forward an alternative narrative to the mantra of the individual and the market, but it needs to be an antagonistic one. Not one that makes out there to be a potential harmony of interests between workers and the capitalist class.

Profit is the organising principle of capitalist society and unless workers can combine to disrupt profit-making as normal then they do not stand a chance of making gains. Solidarity, as Chris points out, is our most powerful weapon.


Anonymous said...

Spot on Chris. Another failed campaign from another failing movement.

But to be honest I also blame the workers.

Many workers are just too lazy or too brainwashed to organise at work. Same goes for voting.

They'd rather spend years on min. wage not being able to feed their kids than tough out a few weeks strike to win a decent pay rise.

I blame school teachers. Aren't they teaching mathematics any more in school.

Anonymous said...

I recall now, the rag was The Independent Business Review or such.

Fair doos, the C.T.U did sit on their hands in the face of the assault that was the Employment Contracts Act why, many reasons, but the main one simple, they knew that their new structured amalgamation was not a battle hardened organisation like the hardline blue collard unions, who resisted amalgamation with the mainly white collard workers that was and still is the rump of the C.T.U.That said,all unions new they were on a hiding to nothing at the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act, so in retrospect the C.T.U.top table made a wise decision that today to some is still a bone of contention.Yet the hardline blue collar unions also misjudged their position in regard to the solidarity of their memberships believing that the awards and pay scales that they had fought for would ensure membership loyalty.How wrong they were.For as an old hardliner once told me when taking over his reigns as organiser "never forget, give a Kiwi, an excuse and they will use it"and how correct that wisdom was.

Anonymous said...

The living wage launch last week did more than re-iterate the immorality of poverty. It provided a calculation of $18.40 per hour and evidence on how this figure was determined. It provides a factual base, just as the national award system did of saying this is what we need to live with dignity. This is no longer a minimum wage argument.

The campaign again reasserts the values of fairness, dignity, respect and creates an opportunity for all of us to confidently pursue the old adage “a fair days work for a fair days pay”. This discussion puts the worker first and may get many to reflect on the market rationale for labour costs and what it deems is a fair return on their “investment”.

Engaging our communities in this debate with a humanistic framework clearly resonates with workers’ experiences, these are the future union members and they have a right to be involved in shaping our future. As unionists our job is to create the opportunity for this discussion, create a sense of belonging and a shared purpose in our struggle. We also need to win!

I accept the wisdom of initially targeting employers who are obliged to be good employers or who are sympathetic to the campaign; this organising tactic builds wins and a platform to mainstream the campaign. Having large numbers of members does not immediately build power or a confident union movement. Being clear about what we stand for and fight for does when members feel, know and participate in a shared struggle.

The living wage campaign creates this opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Nice sentiment Malcolm, but tell me when has the strike weapon ever been successful in advancing working peoples' cause since Blackball ( Chris may be able to help here )?
And particularly when unemployment is runing at about 7%?

the pigman said...

I'm glad to find myself agreeing with you on something, Chris...

Whilst I appreciate the responses offered by Annie and Susan I think they are built on a fundamental concession that the Labour movement is conceding something very basic:

A minimum wage should be enough to live on.

It should be enough to have a couple of children, and comfortably support them through to independence.

Once we give up on that basic principle, and bend like grovelling dogs petitioning our masters for enough to live on... well.. enough said.

Anonymous said...

Blackball unionism was born from basic human rights and a fair living standard.The workers tool in those days as way of union was for education and social sharing to gain those human rights, same as to-days unions.Those Blackball workers had in the end, as all unions last resort had to withdraw their labour.Striking is not a good thing, it hurts all involved and their families, and to be honest the last thing a worker employer and union want is a strike.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is, the union movement did this to itself.

I well remember the time when we were told by union leaders, that union militancy was a thing of the past. Partnership is the future for the trade union movement we were told. Working in partnership with the bosses, or "Work Place Reform" as it was called became the new union strategy. If you weren't with the programme you were labelled a dinosaur.

Solidarity with workers (particularly union activists and delegates) victimised by the boss became a thing of the past. Union leaders instead pressured and steered workers to take "Personal Grievances" to employer friendly courts.

The leading champions for "Workplace Reform" inside the union movement, Ken Douglas, Angela Foulkes, Rex Jones, Andrew Little, Rob Campbell, all argued for giving up the New Zealand union movement's proud history of militancy and the union movement's independence for workplace "Partnership".

In exchange unionised workers were given promises of "consultation". (Most of the consultation that was set up with union members was mostly used to ease union members out the door, to be replaced by casual sub contractors. (But the unionists were consulted).

On balance, this strategy has been an unmitigated disaster for working people.

The main tactic of the partnership strategy was to get workers involved and concerned about increasing "Productivity".

Working people were told if they worked harder and delivered more profits to the employers this would be reflected in their wages.

Unfortunately, the reality has been the exact opposite, wage rates became stagnant, and as productivity increased jobs became fewer and less permanent.

You would think that the CTU would have learnt by now. But no. Even today with the proof of the bankrupt partnership policy all around them. Though not flag ship policy, the CTU is still doggedly plugging away with productivity and partnership.

Partnership, though no longer a flagship policy still gets tired headlines and perfunctionary promotion on the CTU website.

And after all these years is still accompanied with photos of smiling workers that would make the old Soviet Union propagandists proud. These smiling photos of the Stakanovites of productivity is a complete denial of the reality of productivity and partnership with the employers. Productivity and partnership agreements are solidarity agreements with employers, in competition with other workers, of other employers, also competing to increase productivity. Solidarity with bosses and competition with other workers is the exact Polar opposite of what unions should be about.

After all these years of following a failing strategy, no wonder the CTU is now having to go cap in hand to the country on behalf of workers.