By Mohan Sen
The UK labour movement and left should launch a fight for a much higher minimum wage – and take encouragement from the movement across the Atlantic.
Despite the rise of a social democratic left within it, the US Democratic Party remains a pretty straightforwardly capitalist organisation. Nonetheless, newly elected Democratic President Joe Biden is vocally proposing a minimum wage increase more radical than what Jeremy Corbyn proposed – let alone what Keir Starmer is saying.
The stimulus package the new US administration is putting to Congress is limited and contradictory in many respects, but does include raising the federal (national) minimum wage to $15 an hour – the equivalent of slightly over £11. Although the timetable isn’t clear, that would involve more than doubling from the current federal level of $7.25, which hasn’t increased since 2009 (many states have a higher minimum wage).
If the neo-liberal Biden can propose more than doubling the – admittedly very low – US minimum wage, why isn’t UK Labour more radical?
In the 2019 election Labour proposed raising the national minimum wage only from £8.72 to £10 an hour – though eliminating age differentials and other exemptions would also have made an important difference. It had advocated the same figure since 2015. Since then, under Starmer, party spokespeople have gone quiet about even this figure.
In April 2021 the UK minimum wage will increase to £8.91. In theory at least even the Tories have committed to raising it to £10.50 by 2024. It’s time for the labour movement, or as much of it as we can rally, to push for a significantly higher minimum than £10, immediately. The Bakers’ Union and others have sometimes talked about £15 an hour, for which credit; but the proposal remains extremely low-key.
Paula Barker MP’s bill to strengthen enforcement of the minimum wage and other aspects of workers’ rights, particularly in the care sector, should also be taken up and promoted widely.
Now, in the midst of the pandemic, when low-paid workers even desperately need a boost, there is public concern and debate about these issues, and things are in flux, is the time to step it up. That concern will not produce the goods unless the labour movement mobilises, politically as well as in/around workplaces
Part of the difference in the US may be that there has been more strike activity, including specifically to win a $15 an hour. On 15 January fast food workers struck and rallied again to win this demand. Socialists, trade unionists and Labour activists should do we what we can to support and help develop more grassroots workers’ action (and a political fight against the anti-union laws which hinder it).
A good start would be more support for disputes like Sheffield Deliveroo workers’ strikes for a living wage and better rights; and Sage (North London) care workers’ strike for demands including parity with NHS workers and a £12 minimum wage. Perhaps £12 could be an initial demand around which a range of workers’ and labour movement organisations could unite?
• See below for a model motion on these issues you can use in your CLP, union branch or other organisation.