Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Living Wage

The Socialist Party is frequently lambasted for its opposition to reformism. The workers clamour for something concrete now, it is claimed , not abstract socialist principles. They demand immediate improvements that can be obtained by campaigns for legislation it is argued. The Socialist Party case that although some reforms may be of material benefit to the working class, advocating party policy to struggle for particular reforms hinders the struggle for socialism and diverts our energies into what often results in dead-ends.

SOYMB found this article by Stephanie Luce on the Labor Notes website particularly relevant in that it offers some support for our analysis and it is worth extensively quoting from it.

"...20 years ago a “living wage” campaign by pastors and union organizers in Baltimore caught the attention of activists around the country. It looked like a way to address the fact that so many people were working but were still poor. Living wage activists have accomplished a lot since then, winning more than 125 living wage ordinances in cities and counties, three city minimum wages, and state and federal minimum wage increases. Eight states have indexed their minimum wage to inflation because of activist pressure, and campaigns to raise and index state minimums are underway in 10 more states...

...Yet the number of workers earning poverty wages remains as high as ever. A quarter of all workers in 2009—about 35 million people—earned less than the hourly wage needed to bring a full-time worker to the federal poverty line for a family of four...

...And even the “living wages” the movement has won are not enough to bring a worker out of poverty, especially since many low-wage workers are involuntarily part-time. To meet the federal poverty line for a four-person family, a worker would need to earn $10.63 an hour and work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. But this official poverty line—$22,113 a year for a family of four—grossly underestimates the real cost of living. The living wages won in the last 20 years vary from $9.50 to $17.78 (if health benefits are not provided) and include no guarantee of hours...

...For the most part, the living wage movement did not turn out to be an easy path to new organizing, and as a result by the 2000s some unions had backed off heavy involvement.

In some cities, unions have even argued against living wage campaigns because they might be a deterrent to new organizing: If workers got a raise through legislation, they might not see the need for a union. Some in the building trades have been reluctant to put the labor movement’s stamp of approval on the ordinances’ low pay. Sometimes unions attempted to pass ordinances from the top down through relations with politicians, rather than doing the hard work of movement- and relationship-building. Some campaigns did not involve any of the workers that would be covered by the ordinance, although many did.

...But defeating the corporations that have built their entire business model on low wages remains a giant challenge..."

Indeed, Luce's conclusion is quite an understatement. A Living Wage to ensure low paid workers earn enough to provide for themselves and their families is an old demand, going back to the 1920s and probably beyond. Socialism is not about redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor, but about establishing a society that would not be divided into rich and poor. To adapt Marx, workers should replace the demand for a “Living Wage” by the revolutionary demand for the “Abolition of the Wages System”. But let’s get one thing clear. We in the Socialist Party have nothing against workers struggling for and getting higher wages if they can. We favour this (even though this should be tied to struggling to abolish the wages system altogether.) We hope the Living Wage campaigns to get employers to pay some of their workers more succeeds, even if we don’t like the term “living wage” any more than “fair wage”. There’s nothing fair about the wages system and we’re against people having to work for a wage to live.

Luce endeavours to make many positive points for the Living Wage campaign in that it has aided unions to build ties to workers, launch organizing drives, and support contract campaigns and that Living Wage activists although aware all along that the ordinances they championed did not truly create a living wage had to work within the context they faced—a weak labor movement and dormant social movements—and it as their attempt to build their forces for bigger struggles down the road which may possibly be producing an increased trade union consciousness among a section of the working class. But the struggle for higher wages and better working conditions is not the same as socialist understanding of the need to get rid of the wages system altogether by bringing the means of production into the common ownership and democratic control of the whole population. That does not rise spontaneously out of the mere struggle for higher wages but requires the presence and activity of socialists to point this out directly.

The weaknesses of the Living Wage campaign confirms our view that the effect of establishing living wage laws were NOT worth the effort , for although improving the lot of small numbers of people here and there, over several decades there are now more workers in poverty whilst in work, out of work or with no hope of work anytime soon, if at all. Effort would be far better employed in working together to overthrow the system that is the cause of such conditions. There is no short cut to socialism. Nothing else will solve working class problems. To hasten progress to that objective, socialist understanding and socialist organisation are urgent priorities.

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