Setting the “Real” Living Wage in the United Kingdom

_85293800_gettyimages-492437705London   The conservatives in the United States may have managed some permanent confusion among workers by labeling their decades long campaign against unions and dues collection, the “right-to-work” laws, but on our side of the line the several decades we have fought “living wage” campaigns was an equally powerful organizing bulwark against ongoing efforts to freeze millions of workers at the minimum wages, making it clear the minimum was simply not enough for workers and their families to live. In the United Kingdom this fight over labeling has become a very important battle of the brands.

The Guardian summarized the dispute well, writing:

The long-running campaign shot to political prominence last July when the chancellor made a “national living wage”, to be set at £7.20 an hour in April, the centrepiece of his budget. But [Secretary of the Exchequer] Osborne’s statutory minimum, which is set to rise to about £9 an hour by 2020, will apply only to over-25s and remains below the living wage, which is calculated to reflect the cost of a decent standard of living for a full-time worker. The living wage now stands at £9.40 for London, where it is calculated by the mayor’s office, and £8.25 across the rest of the UK. More than a quarter of FTSE 100 firms have signed up to pay it to their staff, with Lidl, the supermarket chain, among recent high-profile converts.

Converting the pounds to the dollar and translating English to American, the conservative government is essentially proposing an increase in the federal or national minimum wage in the UK to $10.42 this spring and then $13.03 in US dollars by 2020. The living wage campaigners numbers in London equal $13.61 in dollars and nationally $11.94, so these are differences worth fighting for obviously. The living wage campaigns in the UK are won by voluntary compliance rather than being established as mandatory minimums, and the signees claimed around 66000 workers under agreements in 2015, I was told now believe that they are closer to 100,000 workers.

So, what’s to do about this somewhat slick, though flattering, attempt to appropriate the terminology and spirit of wage increases while not giving them out in reality? A high level, blue ribbon commission has been formed with labor, churches, foundations, and economists to try and re-calibrate the figures in establishing a competitive standard to establish a new “living wage” for progressive forces. The commission debated calling itself the “real” living wage outfit or changing their name, but instead rightly entered the fray. As we know from the US and Canadian campaigns such pursuits can become fool’s errands as one tries to balance political reality against all of the elements that might justifiably be included in such formulas. In the US the arguments have always been around health care and day care costs. In Canada, childcare has often been the bridge too far for some city bylaw fights.

With voluntary compliance some might think this is an argument more about posture than policy for progressives trying to keep the pressure on while holding tightly to their signatories, but talking to people close to the Commission’s deliberations there’s much more at state. The devolving governmental powers in Scotland won by the Scottish Parliament after losing the independence vote last year have the Scottish National Party and its allies on this issue, including from the labor unions, moving to establish a living wage standard for public, governmental workers in Scotland. The Scots have indicated to the Living Wage Commission that they are interested in setting their rate at the number the commission recalibrates, assuming the economics aligns with their politics and finances as well, The potential for Scottish adoption of the, what can I say, but “real” living wage, makes this dispute and the number crunching that undergirds it much more than a spitting match about terminology, giving it a strong push against what fairly, we and others, could now label the lesser “so-called” living wage set by the conservatives in the national government at Westminster.