Lessons of the Living Wage

Money on PlateMaurice Glasman is speaking today at a Unions21 / Compass event on ‘Negotiating for Economic Democracy’, 1pm-2pm, Cobden 2, in the secure zone of Labour Party Conference in Manchester


For those of us who build their politics around the dignity of labour, the power of association and the centrality of free and democratic trade unions to a good society there are reasons to feel blue. Wages stagnate, work practices are degraded and the status of labour disregarded and yet trade unions do not flourish as the repository of the hopes of a decent life. The tragic paradox we confront is that there has never been a greater need for a robust trade union movement and yet there is continuous trade union decline and an intensification of its marginality where it is needed most, in the private sector.

A paradox is seemingly contradictory but reveals a truth. It could be that trade unions have not been socialist enough, caring more about the state and policy that about the social and society. It could be that trade unions have become procedural and administrative and have ceased to be relational and political. It could be that trade unions are identified with defending bad work and not promoting the good. It could be that an activist elite have spoken in the name of people who do not agree with them but are too disorganised to resist. It could be that there was too little energy put into leadership development for members. It could be that trade unions have not been able to organise among immigrant workers. It could be that people view trade unions as a drag on improving the economy and part of the problem rather than the solution. It could be that capitalism resents the constraints that trade unions place on their profits and uses all its power to marginalise them. Whatever it is, trade unions have to look to themselves and how they can better defend the status of work and of people under conditions of sustained commodification.


It is in this context that the success of the Living Wage campaign is worth understanding as it could give some good clues to the direction that trade unions need to go in order to renew their vocation as the democratic defenders of society and the human status of workers.


The Living Wage campaign was pioneered in Baltimore in the 1990’s, by BUILD, a community organisation within the Industrial Areas Foundation. As its name suggests, the organisation was founded to promote organising in industrial areas and it grew out of the CIO founded by John L Lewis. The Living Wage campaign then spread to London where it achieved remarkable success in the private as well as the public sector. Its distinction is that it was not driven by Unions but overwhelmingly by faith communities within the framework of London Citizens which is itself part of the Industrial Areas Foundation.


It turned out that concerns for family and for dignity, for recognition and inclusion within the firm were vital. That the faith traditions, most particularly the Catholic Church, non conformists and Islamic institutions were far more trusted by poor workers in London than the secular organisations of the Labour Movement. Paying people enough to live, to feed their families and have some rest, was fundamental to each of them.  No one could agree on abortion, creation or the right day to observe the Sabbath but each of them agreed there should be a living wage for those who worked. It turned out that faith and citizenship shared a resistance to the domination of the rich and of money.


In more traditional terms it was a genuine relationship between faith and labour and that proved very effective in motivating people and generating energy.


The second feature was a very strong stress on leadership development from within the workers and congregations so that the people themselves conducted the negotiation. This was a direct throwback to labour organising from a century before. ‘The action is in the reaction’. ‘Work within the experience of your people. ‘Push a negative hard enough and it becomes a positive.’ These were the rules of organising that were taught by London Citizens and they echo the maxims of ‘educate, agitate and organise’ that animated the growth of unionism.


A strong emphasis on relational power and the building of relationships characterises the Living Wage campaign. ‘Relationships precede action’ was another vital maxim of the leadership training and was pursued. One to one conversations build trust and common understanding between a divided workforce and civic communities.


Initially at the London Hospital and then through Barclays, HSBC, KPMG and throughout the financial and then the university sector the Living Wage was won by and for workers who were overwhelmingly contracted out; the cooks, cleaners and security guards who the Unions have found so difficult to reach and organise. Moreover, it more often than not led to the staff being brought back in house and the strengthening of solidarity within the firm.


What are the conclusions for unions? The first is that unions must find a way of working within the experience and language of workers as they are, and not as they would like them to be. In London that means being able to speak about honour, dignity and family life as good concepts. It means recognising the changes brought by immigration and trying to build a common good with poor workers who do not necessarily have any experience of the labour movement but who do know about the power of association from their faith backgrounds. It means trusting those workers and training them to lead their own campaigns and not linking that to a wider political agenda in terms, for example, of fighting the cuts.


The importance of work and of good work was central to each of the Living Wage campaigns. Living Wage also made sense in terms of the business case. There was a reduction of sick leave and greater staff retention after the Living Wage was won. Above all it involved a politics of the common good in which the firm or the institution came out stronger through treating its workforce better. In other words, the fundamental lessons of the Living Wage campaign was that the politics of the common good requires leadership development, an inclusive moral language of improvement and an engagement with the moral traditions of workers. The unions need to rediscover the importance of relationships and trusting their membership and talking to them personally rather than through emails or at public meetings. In other words, the importance of organising as a labour tradition is the immediate task ahead of us. I can tell you that it works.

This article appears in the Unions21 publication ‘Extending Collective Bargaining: Extending Union Influence’


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One Response to “Lessons of the Living Wage”

  1. Christina Sosanya says:

    Dear All,

    This is a very timely and helpful article to both Trade Unions and their members.

    Our Union is discussing this subject of “Living Wage” in the present economic condition.

    There should be no pretence that this is the type of fight that Unions need to turn their attention to.

    The G & V (Union of General & Volunteer Workers) is firmly in support.


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