The struggle for a living wage

July 5th, 2008

The minimum wage for many of our members is an important issue. Shop workers are low paid and are paid the minimum wage or just above. As a Tesco worker I know what it is like to live on little more than the minimum wage year after year.

As part of my election programme I have called for an hourly rate of £8 per hour. At present, the minimum wage is £5.52 per hour if you are 22 and over - a 36.5 hour week gives you a weekly pay of £201.48. For younger workers the rate is even more pitiful. A worker aged 18-21 is on £4.60 per hour and £3.40 per hour for all workers under the age of 18.

Is this enough to live on!? With prices of all the main stable foods rocketing, and fuel for our car and to heat our homes becoming luxury items, the trade unions must intervene to end poverty wages.
For those living on the meagre wages of the National Minimum Wage, it is a disgrace to the fourth richest country in the world. If all those who set the National Minimum Wage had to live on such a wage then they would be the first to shout loudest for a massive increase.

Twenty years ago in Usdaw when the minimum wage debate started, the union agreed to fight for a weekly wage of £120 for a 35 hour week. When the New Labour government came to power, the trade unions compromised on a much lower minimum hourly rate. The National Minimum Wage was introduced in 1999 and was set at £3.60 per hour. For 35 hours pay this worked out at £144 per week. A few quid more than the original demand some 10 years earlier. This compromise meant the National Minimum Wage was a poverty wage.

The government’s increases have been the bench mark for our negotiations. For the companies who only pay pennies above the minimum wage, they have to offer us the same as the minimum wage increase. This year the minimum wage was increased by 3.8%. So let’s see what Tesco, Sainsbury and Morrison offer us!

The Tesco starter rate is £5.94 and that is a mere 42p above the minimum wage and that is one of the best agreements.

The government is squeezing the public sector pay and it won’t be long before the same will be demanded in the private sector. What will our leaders do then? With their partnership strategy and acceptance of such a low minimum wage rate, it will be impossible to mobilise Usdaw members to fight for a few pennies.

One of the criticisms made against me when I demand a decent wage is that the members are apathetic and this is shown by the lack of turn-out in wage ballots. I believe the reason the members don’t vote is because they feel outside the whole wage bargaining process, feel their point of view does not matter anyhow and if they did fight would our leaders be serious about the struggle.

It won’t be an easy campaign to win a decent wage but it is a battle that must be started. Otherwise the millions of retail workers outside the ranks of the trade unions will remain there and the bosses will be laughing for the rest of their lives with the luxuries they receive from the labour of poor retail workers.

I will argue on the EC and at ADM that we start a campaign of mass mobilisation around the £8 per hour demand. I will ask the other unions with members in retail sector to join the struggle. But the one thing I am sure of, it won’t be a campaign giving instructions from the leaders of Usdaw to the our members.

Three of the four largest unions Usdaw, GMB and Unite (TGWU) all have agreements with the big four retailers. Between the three of them they donated 1.9million to New Labour just this year. This means that they should be using their industrial strength to force New Labour to listen to the workers these unions represent. The unions should organise a joint national campaign to increase the wages for all retail workers. The unions should launch an extensive campaign of agitation to win retail workers to possible strike action thus ensuring the employers know the unions are really serious this time about fighting for members. This is why I believe that all the trade unions must unite in a campaign to secure for the low paid a decent, living wage.

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