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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Living Wages and What Do You Get?

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.15.01 PMNew Orleans     Here’s the good news: add New Orleans to the list of cities that have passed a better wage for any company that subcontracts with the city or receives more than $50000. Beginning in January 2016 wherever the city’s public money goes in significant amounts, workers will find their wages set at $10.55. The measure passed by a 6-0 vote in the City Council, despite hand-wringing earlier by the Mayor about the potential cost. It is unclear how many workers will benefit, but all the movement is in the right direction and for a change, listening to the Council members, was done for the right reasons very deliberately to address inequity.

Local 100 United Labor Unions has already moved into gear in anticipation of a favorable vote, winning recognition on a unit of more than forty janitorial workers in recent days, knowing they could get the bump. We’ll be back at the airport where a new administration there had moved back our prevailing wages to the minimum on the last contract bid. We’re all over an announced privatization at the LSU campus in New Orleans where 70 workers are being pushed out of civil service protections. We’re on a roll having won a $10 minimum wage for school workers in the giant Houston Independent School District, and even seeing support finally building for a higher wage in Dallas where we have campaigned on this issue for years. It’s not a sea change, but it all adds up.

Hillary Clinton in parsing her position around “living wages” and the fight-for-$15 campaign has essentially argued that she is in favor of $15 in the cities that have already shown the courage to pass the measure like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, but thinks the wages should be tailored to local market. Boiling it down, this seems to largely be little more than a position in favor of a higher federal minimum wage in the $10.10 per hour range that President Obama has advocated.

Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” pulled together some interesting points about the purchasing power of minimum wages and even a 15-buck dream raise. On numbers crunched by Pew Research $15 would be different everywhere:

In Honolulu, the priciest urban area in the United States, a $15 minimum wage is only worth about $12.24; in rural West Virginia, meanwhile, where prices are lower than anywhere else in the country, $15 is worth closer to $20. The only place where $15 is actually worth $15 is Allentown, Pennsylvania

A map put together by Pew indicates that in places like New York City, greater Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, and the Seattle area even their stair step to $15 per hour still buys a lot less, sometimes more than 20% less, than it would buy in other areas. A careful look at the map indicates that the same problem of diminishing purchasing power exists in the metro Portland, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and Pittsburgh as well as some weird pockets like right at the tip of the New Hampshire-Canadian border. In other words the same cities where the pressure to raise the minimum wage is coming from. Unfortunately in most cases what we are winning is still piecemeal for contract workers here and for fast food workers there, while the inequity to workers trying to live on minimal wages in those cities is universal. Many cities, like Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas have been blocked from enacting citywide minimum wages in the corporate-political push-back to earlier living wage campaigns, most run by ACORN between 1995 and 2005.

What we have now is a patchwork of inequity on wages making even our victories, though hard fought, bittersweet. Almost all of the Republicans are described as “abolitionists” on minimum wages, not only opposing an increase, but arguing that there should be no set standards, substituting living wage campaigns for a plantation wage campaign. Democrats need to be careful on the business-friendly parsing being done by Hillary Clinton which risks faint praise for living wages as a pressure value in some urban pockets while leaving the rest of America’s lower wage workers stuck in the same rut waiting for a Congressional miracle.

We can’t really afford to change the debate from a federal minimum to regional wage rates like the ineffective, and often irrelevant, Mexican system. We need to speak with one voice.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail