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Editorial: Launching a full-scale offensive for better wages

THIS spring the national living wage — in practice the statutory minimum wage — went up to £8.21 per hour.

Not every employer pays this and a good many workers are forced by circumstance or ignorance of the law to accept wages below that level — but if you are over 25 that is the very least you should be paid.

After years of standstill there has been a modest growth in wages.

Statistical analyses of earnings and income is an arcane science subject to much dispute, but according to the Office of National Statistics, median household disposable income was £29,400 in the financial year ending 2019, which was up 1.4 per cent or £400 compared with 2018, after accounting for inflation.

The introduction of the national minimum wage was campaigned for, especially by low-paid workers in the public service unions, for many years.

When in periods of relative economic growth and labour shortages — while trade union power was relatively strong and unions operated relatively unconstrained by law ­ — there was a strong attachment to the principle of free collective bargaining.

Strong workplace organisation and a vibrant shop steward system meant workers could often maintain a reasonable level of wage growth. It was always a battle, and prices always rose to eat away at each advance.

Even so, not all groups of workers were well placed to exercise power in the workplace and there was an expectation in the dog days of the Major government that a Labour government would introduce a national minimum wage and, true to our gradually diminished expectations, the New Labour government did indeed introduce a rather minimal floor to earnings. £3.70 an hour was the figure.

In today’s labour market the present national minimum wage for a 35-hour week is £287.35 a week, or just under £15,000 a year.

Millions of workers do not have a regular, guaranteed full-time job but juggle a portfolio of bits and pieces and thus are just about managing on very low incomes.

Anyone with the slightest sense of reality about conditions in many cities, towns and villages knows that unsustainable household debt is rife.

In the world of payday loans and strong-arm loan sharks, much of the discussion about a living wage is many miles away from reality.

But even for relatively better-paid workers, job insecurity means we are all one month away from disaster.

The national living wage is a concept that followed the introduction of the national minimum wage and was given direction by the TGWU (now Unite), the GMB and Unison after a real fall in the wages of low-paid workers and a growing anger at the social costs of a period in which anti-trade union laws, privatisation and social dumping and austerity economics had driven down wages across many sectors.

The public service union PCS is setting the pace by calling upon the government to honour its commitment to pay the living wage to tens of thousands employees of government departments and contractors. It is time to turn our attention to a national wages offensive that aims to raise wages across the whole pay range.

PCS members working for outsourcing contractors are on indefinite strike for payment of the London living wage.

In our privatised and outsourced public services as much as in manufacturing, profits are rising and the rich are getting richer by our work rather than their own.

Hold to the central idea — revolutionary in its implications — that the profits of the rich are our unpaid wages and we can see what living standards for working people would be like in a socialist system.

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