How do we win the Living Wage?

On July 6th, Living Wage campaigner Deborah Littman spoke to an assembly of faith groups, unionists, students and other activists gathered at Saint Peter’s Church in Wellington. Much of what Littman presented was encouraging. Her experiences as part of successful living wage campaigns within London and Vancouver offer hope to New Zealand activists struggling to achieve similar goals. However, while in agreement with many of Littman’s essential points, the author would like to offer some brief, critical and hopefully constructive reflections.

The following is a broad outline of one of Littman’s arguments: employers (public and private) operate as part of a community. To the extent that they exist as part of this community, they have a responsibility to community members, in particular their workers and workers’ families. Hence, employers which fail to provide their workers a living wage have shirked this responsibility and have betrayed the community’s trust. Having presented the situation in this way, we (as members of that community) should pressure employers to act responsibly, to pay their workers adequately and to fulfill their obligations. That is, we should encourage them to act as “ethical employers”. The benefits of such an obligation (if fulfilled) are mutual: living standards improve, and employers benefit from an improved work ethic and a lower rate of turnover

A number of responses could be given here. First, the demand that employers be held accountable to a community seems reasonable enough, and appropriate perhaps as an immediate demand. However, the question of “ethicality” and “responsibility” threatens to obscure an elementary issue: how is it that these employers occupy such a central decision making role within the economic space of our communities, exerting monumental influence over the lives of workers and their families, yet they remain at the same time accountable to that community only to the extent that employment law and their moral proclivities are concerned? By this, poverty pay is reduced to an issue of employers behaving “unethically”, as opposed to an issue of the employer-employee relationship (amongst other things) being morally objectionable by an even greater token. Should these crucial questions concerning the financial fate of workers and their families be left to some unaccountable private interest, or to the community of workers themselves? Certainly, this point leads in radical directions, raising further questions about how workplaces are organized, by whom, and to what ends. Yet, important as these questions are, they are exactly the kind that are never asked, nor answered.

Second, similar questions might be raised regarding a contingent point: that a living wage would be of mutual benefit to both businesses and the workers they employ. There are indeed cases of this (and Littman gives examples). However, there might too be counter cases where improvements to work ethic (as a follow-on to satisfactory pay) do not directly translate into increased productivity. In these cases, attempts to persuade our “ethical employer” would be found wanting. This leads to another point: while persuasion of this sort might prove effective in certain instances, we should not anticipate this always being the case. Further, by engaging with the issue in this way (i.e., as something of potential benefit to New Zealand business interests) an onus is unwittingly placed on workers themselves to prove that they be worth the extra investment. This is not an advantageous position for workers to argue from, nor is it the position from which the living wage campaign should seek to conduct itself.

Attempts to persuade employers may prove effective. However, the contents of that persuasion should not blind us to an obvious truth: an increase in wages represents an increase in operating costs and, by extension, a decrease in profits for capital. Of this fact, employers are well aware. And it is this antagonism, that between profits and people, which has forever marked the struggle for adequate wages and the means to a dignified existence for working people within capitalist societies. Persuade as we might, the stick of capital can only bend so far. Though, that isn’t to make a pass at trying. Indeed, our work is cut out for us, and the evidence is still clear: we have a lot of bending to do…