The success of the living wage campaign in London over the past decade provides a good example of what can be achieved with collective action.
The idea came from the grass roots of trade unions and community organising groups. Low wages meant cleaners and security staff working in Canary Wharf and other areas of the capital having to do two or three jobs a week to try to keep their families above the poverty line.
As a result the community organising group London Citizens began the campaign for a living wage. Research was commissioned from Queen Mary University to find what the level of wages should be for people to be able to live above the poverty line in London. The initial rate was set at £6.30 an hour.
London Citizens spoke nicely to the senior managers of companies and when this did not work a more direct approach was taken. The latter in one case involved taking lots of small coinage and banking it slowly at an Oxford Street branch of HSBC. A meeting with then chairman of HSBC Sir John Bond followed.
A big break for the campaign came in 2004 when then London Mayor Ken Livingstone agreed to set up a Living Wage unit that would set an annual rate. The first rate was set at £6.70 in 2005. Now, the living wage stands at £8.30 an hour while the minimum wage is £5.93.
Private companies have increasingly adopted the living wage, with HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered and KPMG among those signing up. In the public sector there were hospital trusts and local authorities like Tower Hamlets, Islington, Ealing and Lewisham which became living wage employers. All together it is believed that £40 million has been put into the pockets of the lowest paid over the last 10 years.
Unions like PCS have taken actions in favour of low paid workers most recently at Buckingham Palace and previously down the road at the Palace of Westminster.
The living wage though makes sense for the employer as well as the worker. There is better morale among staff, which leads to lower turnover and improved productivity.
Now the living wage campaign has set itself wider targets, seeking to get Tesco to use some of its £3.8 billion profits to pay all its 280,000 staff the living wage. At present the groceries giant pays its cleaners and other lowest paid people the minimum wage. The living wage campaign wants the company to pay the £8.30 living wage in the capital and £7.20 outside.
There are also plans to pressure other companies via shareholders at AGMs. A Living Wage Foundation is being set up that will operate along similar lines to the Fairtrade Foundation, awarding a mark of recognition to good employers.
Following on from the living wage campaign community organisers and unions called for a regularisation of undocumented workers. These demands came together in the Strangers into Citizens campaign that looks to introduce an earned citizenship for those who have been in the country a number of years, without papers, but contributing positively to the country.
The living wage and regularisation campaigns compliment each other because having a minimum living level for wages stops unscrupulous employers from using migrant labour to undercut the existing workforce.
The payment of low wages has been a scandal over the years, given it not only robs the worker of the value of their labour but also provides a welfare payment from the tax payer to unscrupulous companies. So a company can pay low wages knowing that the state will pick up the difference with other tax credit payments. This is the welfare cheating that is all too absent from the populist press.
The success of the living wage campaign over the past 10 years is a cause for celebration, a real example that collective action still works best when it comes to obtaining justice for all.