Campaigning for a Living Wage

The Service and Food Workers’ Union recently initiated a campaign for a ‘living wage.’ This call has been endorsed by scores of community and union groups, from the Meat Workers to the PPTA to the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa. The Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand Campaign’s statement ‘call[s] upon the Government, employers and society as a whole to strive for a living wage for all households as a necessary and important step in the reduction of poverty in New Zealand.” How can we win a living wage? What are the politics around this question?

A positive reform

The call for a minimum wage is a demand as old as the workers’ movement. It is the demand that is rooted in the radical assertion that every worker has a stake in the immense wealth that their labour produces.  As such, it undermines a message that the ruling class of capitalist society has incessantly sought to carve into the collective consciousness of working people; that whatever we receive from our bosses is a privilege, not a right, and that even if work is hard and unfulfilling, we should always feel ‘lucky’ that someone decided to give us a job and pay us out of their own pockets.

A living wage, conceptualised as the right for every worker, is a demand that turns capitalist logic on its head. Implicit in that demand is the understanding that workers should not have to beg for scraps from the tables of their bosses. That all the profit and wealth that employers claim for themselves is in fact, entirely dependent on the skills, inputs and labour of their workers; and that with this being the case, workers should rightfully take the things they need from the wealth they produce in order to lead happy and meaningful lives.

A demand for a living wage is a positive reform that socialists should support. It is a demand that, in its implicit logic, pits the interests of the capitalist class against the interests of the workers that it exploits for wealth. It could be a demand to organise around; if it raised the consciousness, self-confidence and self-activity of working people, it could lead to great union membership, strength and power.

The demand – the what – aspect of a living wage is uncontroversial. Workers are paid far too little in New Zealand, and the poorest paid nothing like a living wage. But questions of strategy and tactics – how we win improvements – raise bigger, unanswered problems.

A position of weakness

Given the radical nature of the demand for a living wage in a capitalist society, the working class, in order to achieve its objective is required to act collectively and militantly to assert its own class interests against a ruling capitalist class that is indefatigably opposed to its success.

Yet the approach taken by the unions around the Living Wage campaign has been, not to rally the working class behind a militant campaign but to attempt to co-opt the ruling class into supporting the demand. The campaign for a living wage was launched on 14 February this year by the Service and Food Workers Union (SFWU); it has broad support among New Zealand Unions and has been endorsed by the Council of Trade Unions (CTU).

The union-led campaign has made a tremendous effort to emphasise the suffering of ordinary working people and their families. A public awareness campaign aimed at documenting the abysmal conditions of workers in New Zealand’s low wage economy has been one of the most distinguishing features of the call for a living wage.

Unions supporting the cause have been collecting stories from their rank and file members and the picture being painted is one of a working class society that is being torn apart at its fabric by increasing poverty and inequality. While it is important for the wider working class to understand the reality of this situation, the picture that is being painted for the working class is a picture of desperation and defeat. We are presenting ourselves as victims – as already defeated – in order to win the hearts of those above us. We should be talking about how to rebuild our strength in order to inspire those around us.

This is not the campaign for rallying the working class in a militant struggle against their exploiters. This is a plea for the exploiting class to take pity on the workers. The campaign’s statement starts by begging employers to change a situation they are responsible for having created: it ‘call[s] upon the Government, employers and society as a whole to strive for a living wage.’ No word there of union power. The bosses, instead, are something meant to turn against a low-wage economy they have been doing very nicely from to this point.

Our unions have been under attack for decades. There is no point pretending rebuilding will be easy. But there is no other way. Examples overseas – from the Chicago teachers to the US National Domestic Workers Alliance – show it can be done, as does Unite’s success in the last decade in fast food here. But consciousness is key: if we convince our own people the only way forward is to beg, they will never gain any sense of their own potential strength.

Relying on goodwill?

 A campaign for a living wage which relies on the benevolence of the capitalist class is bound for failure. It relies on a misguided notion that capitalists are unaware of the consequences of their greed. In reality, capitalists are keenly aware that when workers stake an uncompromising claim to the wealth created by their own labour; the capitalists’ own claims are dangerously susceptible to challenge. Capitalists also understand that their profits are derived from ripping off workers and that in order to keep these profits growing, more and more must be taken from working class people and their communities.

Politicians who serve the interests of the ruling class have already done what they can to dismiss and minimise the importance of the fledgling living wage campaign. Prime Minister John Key has described the campaign as “simplistic” and has stated in unequivocal terms that it is the right of employers to decide whether or not employees get paid a living wage at the proposed rate of $18.40. Even Labour Party leader David Shearer, while committing his party do “what we can to support the movement”, has been cautiously tempered in his approach, stating that the “first step” would be increasing the minimum wage to $15.

What is needed?

If the working class are to make any kind of gain in a capitalist system that is designed to exploit them, it must do so through class struggle. A campaign for a living wage will only be achieved when the working class movement is able to courageously and openly confront the ruling class, with the aim of forcing it to accept working class demands.

Any notion that workers and capitalists can find a common ground where the workers will be better off must be dispelled. Workers interests are systemically and essentially opposed to those of the capitalist class and the progress of the workers movement will only come about when this reality is openly acknowledged.