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Collective Voice for a Living Wage

Discussion of trade union involvement in the campaign for a Living Wage has commonly focused on the question of union-community coalitions. It has been suggested that unions can best promote the Living Wage through joint work with community organisations and in the USA, citywide campaigns have often take this form with unions linking with faith and other organisations to press city leaders to adopt Living Wage ordinances. In the UK, however there is only limited evidence of joint work of this kind. 

How much union involvement has there been in the Living Wage campaign so far?

The TUC is represented formally on the Living Wage Commission that has oversight of the Living Wage campaign and has worked cooperatively with the Living Wage Foundation, the body that promotes the Living Wage and accredits employers. At a local level, a number of union branches have affiliated to chapters of Citizens UK and have participated in attempts to spread the Living Wage. Coalitional work of this kind though has been accompanied by much mutual suspicion between trade unions and the citizenship movement and unions generally have had little or no involvement in the decision of employers to become formally accredited for paying the Living Wage, even in organisations where they are recognised.

Limited involvement of unions in Living Wage coalitions, however, does not mean that unions have been absent from the campaign or that they have played no part in diffusing the Living Wage standard. Our research indicates that there has been widespread adoption of the Living Wage by UK unions and that unions have played an important part in spreading the Living Wage in parts of the economy where they are present. But this action has often relied upon traditional union methods and has been taken independently of the wider campaign and without the involvement of Citizens UK or the Living Wage Foundation. British unions have absorbed the Living Wage within their traditional repertoire and have tended not to use the issue to develop a novel form of community unionism or forge coalitions with civil society organisations.

The rise of Living Wage disputes in the UK

One indicator of this absorption of the standard is the spread of Living Wage disputes. Particularly notable in this regard are the actions of small ‘indy’ unions, such as the IWGB and UVW, which have used strikes, flash-mobs and other militant actions to try and secure the Living Wage for cleaners and other low-wage workers in universities, government, retail, heritage, media and business service organisations. 

Other, more established unions have pursued a similar course. BECTU members have been involved in a long-running dispute to secure the Living Wage at the Ritzy cinema chain, while Unite, Unison, PCS and GMB have organised strikes for the Living Wage for employees in the NHS, universities, museums and galleries, retail, airports and hospitality. Typically these disputes are small and gauging their degree of success is difficult but they appear to be increasing in frequency and in several cases they have secured the Living Wage for workers as well as other concessions, such as bringing previously outsourced work back in-house.

Linking base pay structures to the Living Wage

Another indicator of union adoption of the Living Wage is its inclusion in collective bargaining. In recent years a number of industry agreements have linked the base of pay structures to the Living Wage calculated by the Living Wage Foundation. This is the case in NHS England, which follows broadly similar developments in the NHS in Wales and Scotland, in further education in Wales and Scotland, for housing charities in Scotland and for Scottish local government. In several industries there are also framework agreements that have been negotiated that do not guarantee the Living Wage but which encourage employers to adopt it. Unison has agreements of this form with organisations representing faith and cooperatively-owned schools.

These multi-employer agreements have been accompanied by single-employer agreements on the Living Wage. A broad range of unions, including Unison, USDAW, Unite, BECTU, PCS and GMB have negotiated collective agreements that ensure the Living Wage is paid to direct employees and in some cases that the rate is also guaranteed for out-sourced workers. Agreements of this kind are relatively common in local government and have also been negotiated in the heritage sector, manufacturing, transport, hospitality, arts and entertainment and education. These agreements can have problematic features for unions: they may erode differentials, prioritise the interests of groups with low levels of membership and may have to be financed by changes in working practices. It is also not possible to say with any certainty how many there are or how many workers are covered. Nevertheless, it is clear that Living Wage clauses have become fairly common within collective bargaining and represent a striking instance of unions adopting an external wage standard.

Union campaigns for the Living Wage

A final way in which unions have promoted the Living Wage is through their campaigning activity. Unite’s Fair Hospitality Charter includes the Living Wage alongside a call for other labour standards, while Unison’s Ethical Care Charter asks local authorities to commit to the Living Wage for direct and outsourced care-workers together with a range of other employment and service standards. Unison’s charter has been signed by more than 40 local authorities through a process akin to Living Wage accreditation and the campaign has made use of direct worker testimony, a method also used by Citizens UK. The charter has been developed independently of the latter, however, and the campaign to promote it has been the union’s alone, with negligible involvement from the wider Living Wage campaign.

In the literature on union revitalisation it is often suggested that unions must develop radical new methods if they are to renew themselves. Forming coalitions with civil society organisations is one such method, which has often been linked to union championing of new issues, such as the Living Wage. Our research on trade unions and the Living Wage is notable for the absence of this linkage. Unions and the ‘official’ Living Wage campaign have remained aloof from one another to a very large degree but unions nevertheless have played a significant part in spreading the Living Wage standard. They have done this by including the Living Wage within their traditional repertoire of collective action. It is through disputes, industry and employer-level bargaining and union campaigning that trade unions have addressed the Living Wage.

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