Living Wage Campaign Barrels Along to Success—in the U.K.

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November 3, 2014; International Business Times

Mop-haired Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is a Tory, the conservative U.K. political party somewhat equivalent to the Republican Party in the U.S. In the U.S., Republican big-city mayors have disappeared from the political scene, leaving Republican Greg Ballard, the mayor of Indianapolis, as the closest stateside equivalent to Johnson.

However, Johnson differs from his American counterparts by celebrating an increase in the living wage of London to £9.15 an hour (over $14.60), up from the previous London living wage of £8.80 and much higher than the national minimum wage of £6.50 per hour. In his statement, Johnson said it was “extremely encouraging to see companies both large and small recognizing the benefits of fair remuneration.” He called the living wage increase a “win-win scenario for the workforce and employers alike.”

As this is being written, we are guessing that the minimum wage ballot initiatives in several states will get the approval of voters and maybe the begrudging acceptance of Republican politicians, but those ballot initiatives don’t compare to the living wage calculations in the London decision. How did a country governed nationally by the Tories (with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats as governing partners and Labour in the opposition) come to embrace the notion of a living wage?

Writing in the Guardian, Yvonne Roberts explains the origins of the living wage campaign, tracing it back to meetings of trade unionists and community activists in East London concerned about the struggles they and their families were having in the economy despite holding down multiple jobs. One of the activists, Roberts writes, was Neil Jameson, who, she says, was trained in community organizing in Chicago in the 1980s along with one Barack Obama. In 2001, the group launched the living wage campaign, and apparently, unlike in the U.S., the leaders of all three political parties have endorsed the idea.

“Change comes from ordinary people having an idea and acting upon it,” explained Jameson. “Our core aim is to help people to help themselves to bring about positive democratic change and improve the way that politics is done. The real challenge is for civil society to wake up and realize our capability and power and take responsibility to organize ourselves better.”

That describes the community organizing strategy behind the living wage campaign operated by Citizens UK, now with 300 organizational members and a staff that includes 43 community organizers. Roberts elaborates on Jameson’s articulation of the Citizens UK strategy:

“Citizens UK has a clear philosophy. Organizers work with local communities—churches, mosques, schools—to decide the issues. It will then mount an ‘action,’ such as a picket, and campaigners will try to build a relationship with the individual who has the authority to make changes. The aim is to take back power from the state and the market and establish the values that matter. Initially, the living wage campaign focused on pay levels in four East London hospitals, then it turned to Canary Wharf and the banks. It later ensured that fair pay and division of assets were part of the 2012 Olympics.”

The campaign has created momentum in the private sector, where companies such as Google and Barclays, along with large nonprofit employers like Oxfam, sign up as “living wage employers.” Currently, around 1,000 have done so. Mayor Johnson’s announcement coincided with the beginning of the third annual “living wage week,” an agenda of events and programs aimed at increasing awareness of the need for and basis behind a living wage.

Wouldn’t it be a neat turn of events if a mop-haired Republican political leader in the U.S. popped up to announce that, like Boris Johnson, a living wage is a win-win for everyone? We’re holding our breath.—Rick Cohen