Low-paid staff need solidarity

"Call up the craftsmen, bring me the draughtsmen, build me a path from cradle to grave. And I'll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage."

In just 33 words the English songwriter, Billy Bragg, captures the essence of the grand social bargain that became the post-war Welfare State.

What does it say, then, about New Zealand's social and economic priorities in 2013 that "a living wage" has, once again, become something to which hundreds of thousands of working-class New Zealanders can only aspire?

When I first learned about the Living Wage Campaign I was dubious; not about its ultimate purpose - who can dispute the sorry state of New Zealand wage- rates? No, what bothered me were the means which the promoters of the Living Wage (calculated this past week at $18.40 per hour, or $736.00, before tax, for a 40-hour week) were employing to achieve their objective.

Moral suasion is a powerful force and certainly not one to be underestimated. New Zealanders, of all people, should have no doubt about the ability of a strong moral argument to mobilise public opinion against clear and present evils.

Those of us old enough to recall the turmoil in which New Zealand was engulfed during the 1981 Springbok tour will readily attest to the consequences of moral force. David Lange's extraordinary speech to the Oxford Union bore similar testimony to the power of a well-marshalled ethical argument.

But all the 1981 protests and Lange's Oxford Union speech achieved was the exclusion of apartheid sport and nuclear weapons from New Zealand territory. They certainly did not end apartheid or nuclear weaponry. Moral suasion can only take you so far.

How far the Living Wage Campaign's moral arguments will take it depends on how vulnerable its targeted employers are to public sentiment. I was not surprised to learn that practically all the successes of similar initiatives overseas were achieved in the public sector. Where the ultimate employers of poorly-paid working people are local or central government politicians there is clearly room for leverage. If the electors can be persuaded to pressure candidates (like London's Boris Johnson) into supporting a living wage for low-paid council and/or government staff, then a favourable outcome (even one that comes at the rate- and taxpayers' ultimate expense) is highly likely.

Large monopoly suppliers of goods and services might also be persuadable.

The opportunity to burnish their public image by stepping up to the plate as good corporate citizens can easily be paid for by adding a cent or two to prices.

In more competitive marketplaces, however, rising labour costs cannot be passed on so easily.

In small-to-medium enterprises the sharing-out of any surplus tends to be a zero-sum game. Higher wages all-too-often mean lower profits. Moral suasion in these circumstances is unlikely to take you very far at all.

Most perplexing of all about the Living Wage Campaign is its origin in the trade union movement. It is hard to think of a more glaring admission of defeat than launching a campaign whose success is ultimately dependent on melting the hearts of the employing class. As if the events of the past three decades hadn't supplied all the evidence a trade unionist could ever need that, when it comes to serving the shareholders (and securing their bonuses!) the employing class has no heart to melt.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the period in our recent history (the mid-1980s) when the share of national income going to the top 1 per cent of income earners was at its lowest, was the very same moment at which the number of workers belonging to a trade union was at its highest.

Or, to put it more bluntly: the most effective instrument for securing a living wage for all workers is a large, strong and confident labour movement. A movement strong enough to secure the restoration of the national award system (which removes the cost of labour from the arena of inter-enterprise competition) and the return of universal union membership (which is the only way of guaranteeing a living wage for workers in the now almost entirely de-unionised service sector).

The Living Wage Campaign that I could lend my wholehearted support to would be the one which set out to explain why these two radical employment relations reforms were crucial to the reconstitution of a workforce that could enter the workplace every morning with dignity and confidence and depart every evening without fear.

It is not the pity and charity of the middle-class New Zealanders being targeted by the Living Wage Campaign that low-paid workers need - it's their solidarity.

The only melting of hearts I have ever witnessed is when people stand and struggle together - for justice.

The Press