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Strength in numbers: the power of trade unions in fighting for a living wage

JOE HUGHES 27/10/2014

Earlier this month 90,000 trade unionists marched through central London to highlight their call for pay rises. It is estimated 5 million people earn less than the living wage; the living wage is based on the amount an individual needs to earn to cover the basic costs of living, in other words 5 million people do not earn enough to cover the basic costs of living. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is fighting back, but are they fighting a losing battle?


Trade union membership is at its lowest levels since the 1940’s, it is half of what it was in 1979; Thatcher’s legacy well and truly lives on. The main argument for this isn’t that people are disengaged by unions as the Tories will have you believe but is actually due to the falling number of public sector workers. The coalition government have undone the rise in public sector workers achieved by the Labour government during the 2000s with numbers continuing to fall. The current mass privatisation we are seeing has led some experts to estimate that public sector employment rates will fall by another 30-40% by the end of the decade. So how does this link in to falling trade union membership?


Historically trade unions have largely been made up of public sector workers; they still make up 60% of the 6.5 million union members. The government know they can not only line their own pockets by selling off large parts of the public sector but can also devolve power away from trade unions in the process as employees move into the private sector are less likely to join up. Trade unions have less power over private companies and therefore struggle to entice private sector employees to join; despite this it is your legal right to be part of a union and doing so can empower you. Trade unions hold little power over private companies because their membership numbers are so low, so the answer is relatively simple; join up. Even on a selfish level, union members earn an average of £4000 a year more than non-union members who are facing wage freezes, salary cuts and humiliating pay rises. On a larger scale bigger union numbers mean more bargaining powers for union bosses in their fight for higher wages for all. So the chances are your £4000 pay rise will just be the start.


The government are not only trying to supress union numbers through cuts in the public sector but also through their grip hold of the main media outlets.  Whenever workers strike for higher pay what do the BBC & the tabloids report?  They report on the disruption it will cause, on the army who have to be drafted in, on the cost it will have to the public coffers. All this is to anger people and subversively rebel against those striking. People need a voice but often do not know how to get it as the mainstream media supresses them any time they do speak, trade unions can provide this though. With larger trade union membership numbers we can rise up against the government and their chums in the media to fight for the living wage for everyone.


Take a look at what is happening at the Ritzy cinema in London; its 93 workers demanded a living wage and through the support of BECTU they have fought, organised strikes, prompted boycotts of the cinema & even got support from people such as Ken Loach and Eric Cantona, to finally get a victory. Its owner, Picturehouse Cinemas, gave in and agreed to give its employees the £8.80 London living wage before then saying in doing so it would have to cut large numbers from their workforce. This is a multi-million pound company who are claiming they cannot afford to pay 93 workers a living wage – their victory may have been short lived but nonetheless Picturehouse did listen so if that cause garners more backing they may again give in and accept redundancies are not needed. I fully believe that with more support those heroic workers will get their way; the right way, and it will be a massive success story in the fight for living wages. However this can only be done through strength in numbers. On their own the 93 could not have done this, so they have gathered support from a wide variety of people, groups and unions – working together they have achieved their goal but have now been hit with another stumbling block, as I say though working together in numbers this block can also be smashed down.


The recent film Pride brilliantly portrayed the story of how LGBT activists supported the miners in their 1984 strike. This shows; just like with the Ritzy, no matter what our own current narrative is there are a lot of us heading towards the same fundamental goal so why not join together in unification to fight back against the wage freezes, the privatisation, the welfare cuts? I urge you to join a union, show solidarity and demonstrate that the TUC are indeed not fighting a losing battle in their demand for a living wage and in the process we can all help each other achieve our purposes. The Ritzy today, the NHS tomorrow?