Why the labor movement should be against the living wage and in favor of the minimum wage.
The issue of the minimum wage is not an economic but a political; It can only be addressed and propagated as a social demand; it is society’s testament as to what it would accept as the lowest a worker should be paid. A testament to its degree of humanity but also a testament to the social, cultural and political cohesiveness of the working class. Its existence as a social demand, recognizes the limitation of the economic struggle (trade union struggle) to economically advance the working class as a whole, rather than those workers organised within strong sections of the trade union movement, that may temporarily be able to subtract a small proportion of the profits, being attached to a prosperous section of the economy, or attached to the state through public service using its position as a leverage for further concessions. Hence the minimum wage is not part of the bargaining ability of any organized section of the working class but represents the political state workers as a class find themselves in society. Its proponents emerge with a selfless outward social outlook of the relationship between capital and labor.
In direct contrast the living wage lifts the weight of responsibility from society’s back thus enabling the concealment of the class nature in the relationship between capital and labor; since a worker’s pay is attached as a reality and a demand to the economic ability of capitalism to give back part of its surplus, or rather to the economic inability of society through capitalism to provide affordable means of housing, transportation, energy, food, water and so on. It therefore accepts the economic usage of these basic social necessities by capital to create markets and through that eliminates the political responsibility of society towards addressing precisely the issue of affordable basic social necessities. A workers wage through the living wage becomes locked with capital’s ability to penetrate these social necessities, to create shortages, and through that bigger demand and in return inflate prices, monopolize sectors or create cartels and price agreements. Under such circumstances a worker’s wage through the living wage will always lag behind the inflationary nature of life under capitalism. Instead of a living wage it will be a wage at a constant level of above the poverty line; with the economic attachment to the market defusing the political argument of what should be socially acceptable in the face of the agreed premises that makes it economically achievable.
To borrow the philosopher’s Simone Weil’s delicate concept of ‘obligation’ and ‘right’, the minimum wage emerges as an obligation whereas the living wage as a right. In this case the living wage as a ‘right’ is preconditioned by the capability of being exercised; and since it can only be exercised through trade unionism, the agreement of industry with its unionized workforce, this ‘right’ does not exist for a vast number of workers employed in non unionized workplaces. As an obligation, a social obligation, the political demand of the minimum wage engulfs society and the working class as a whole. Thus creating a standard a worker should accept in his/her relationship to capital. In this case a worker’s unionization becomes an expression of a political outcry and demand. It comes from a higher level of social consciousness.
In the past period the trade union leaderships have been faced with the increasing problem of a low minimum wage (it has increased by just 1.45 since 2009) at a time of a capitalist crisis, under conditions of low union membership (only 25% of UK employees are union members, the lowest in the last twenty years). In its inability to act upon this basic need, the union bureaucracies found a way to cover their weakness by collaborating with the ruling class and consolidating the working class’ position on the matter. In the absence of a labour government and therefore the easy access to the political discussion and campaign on the economic standard of the minimum wage, the union bureaucracies would have to aggressively campaign against a conservative led government at a time of austerity and capital’s push to reverse and eliminate past gains by the labor movement. Determined to avoid the future prospect of being pressured by the membership to undertake such a national campaign that would not only expose the bureaucracies’ weakness to its members but also their weakness to the establishment as being incapable of suppressing industrial upheaval, especially on an issue that could create political unification, the TUC leadership stepped forward to alleviate the potential of such a development.
Camouflaged as a new and fair social contract between capital and labor, the living wage, has been brought forward and campaigned vigorously by union bureaucracies and embraced by employers as the solution to the condition of pay, it will in fact operate as capital’s Trojan horse and move to create divisions from within the organized sections of the working class. At the GMB conference during the hustings for labour party leadership, a member asked whether it is fair for a teacher living outside London to be paid less for doing exactly the same amount of work to one living inside London. Is it fair indeed. Fairness is precisely the political responsibility and obligation the labor movement faces in relation to the issue of pay rather than the economic right of a section of the organized working class to pursue a change in its material conditions, oblivious to the general social, class implication such a pursue might have. Inward and selfish looking, uninterested of what is fair. Even amongst brothers and sisters the question of pay is now something that brings division rather than unity. In an unprecedented development large national employers have been offered an astonishing discount for what is their biggest percentage of their workforce. Instead of being faced with a campaign for a national raise of the minimum wage, London wages now can be subsidized by the workforce situated outside it. As for the small employers based in the rest of the country where union density is at its lowest and for the vast amount of workers employed through agencies, the right for a living wage is beyond those workers’ capacity to exercise; and why stop there? The precedent that this creates will eventually create further economic zones; Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, all areas which can easily fall behind in the future by being given their own rate of a living wage. The push for the establishment of mayors in major cities hides precisely the urge of the establishment to provide in the future, mayors with the freedom to deviate from national law on labor issues. The sort of devolution the establishment is pushing through is the kind that will create new labor standards from city to city, placing British workers in direct antagonism to each other through the geopolitical dismantling of the whole of the British working class. It is ironic that such a development has begun from the trade union movement itself.