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Labour Movement ‘Let’s have no more ‘buts’ today’ – how the battle for the national minimum wage was won

The Star reprints here RODNEY BICKERSTAFFE’S landmark speech to TUC conference, moving a composite motion on low pay, on Wednesday September 3 1986

IT IS make your mind up time. It has been a long hard struggle, a long hard road, but here we are at last on the brink of an historic decision, not just for the working poor in our society but for the trade union movement as well,

I need no-one to talk to me about being patient just a little longer.
I need no-one to try to find another excuse for doing nothing for the eight million low-paid in our society. 

Don’t talk to me about justice, equality, fraternity and in the same breath deny hope to those who toil amid exploitation in Thatcher’s Britain.

Let’s have no talk about moonlighters who only need low pay for 40-50 hours work because they have other jobs to go to afterwards in order to make up a living wage.

You all know the problem. It is not new. It has been with us this century past and beyond. 

You meet the working poor every day of your life. They are your brothers and sisters. We expect Thatcher to walk past them, ignore them, spurn them, but not us — not the trade union movement. 

We have tried in vain over the years to eradicate poverty pay, but now slowly and surely the tide is turning in favour of those masses of our brothers and sisters. 

Already there has been support for the idea of a legal minimum safety net, a wage below which no employer shall be allowed to exploit any fellow human being in the last quarter of the 20th century, here in Britain, one of the 20 richest nations in the world.

The Women’s TUC, the Wales TUC, the Scottish TUC and, of course, last October, the Labour Party conference all endorsed the idea of a statutory minimum wage. 

I can hear some of the contributions later on already. “Well, yes, this is a very emotional subject. Well, yes, we are all for the low-paid but, but, but…” Well, let’s have no “buts” today.

To my friends who have some doubt, some reservations, I respect the points that have been made, but I believe most of them can be answered. 

Few now argue the devil take the hindmost line. Some more seriously think that the statutory national minimum wage is a stalking horse for old-fashioned wage restraint. That is not so. 

We do not advocate a policy that goes back to the unacceptable face of a wages policy. A statutory national minimum is, of course, an intervention but not against trade unions, not against collective bargaining. It is against unscrupulous employers who, week after week, month after month, are driving our people into the ground. 

Some say: “What about my differential?”  

To those I say: “The price of a living wage for the lowest paid need never be a pay cut for anybody else. We fight as hard as any for a fair rate for everybody’s job, but, if we honestly believe the trade union and labour movement’s claim that the lowest should be raised towards the average to ensure a decent life, then of course it impacts on all of us. 

We understand that. We know that. It is a challenge we reach out to if we believe in our roots.

If we are saying we do not really want to help the poor, we just want to tear-jerk every now and again, well, let them say so.

Let’s forget a minimum wage by law, let’s forget collective bargaining, because they all impact on us, don’t they?

You tell them, you look them in the eye: “Differentials? I understand the point, but the people I am talking about do not know differentials. They want clothes and shoes, food and shelter and, yes, occasionally the chance of a holiday. And why not? 

For those who argue that the working poor can receive a tax or social security handout, I refuse to accept that is good trade unionism. 

The labourer is worthy of his or her hire and, so far as I am concerned, we should not be subsidising low-pay employers. 

We are not into the politics of greed and, if some stand up and curse us, there are millions that will stand up and bless you. Today I move Composite 12.

Composite 12 was carried 
For 4,146,000
Against 3,671,000
Majority 475,000

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