The fight for decent pay goes on

Podium; From a speech by the General Secretary of the public service union Unison to its annual conference.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
My mother, who was a nurse, joined our union in 1940, and became an activist for the rest of her working life. My dad was a school caretaker, and was also a member of our union. Both were low paid. I first marched with our low-paid members as a nine-year-old boy and unfortunately there's a photograph of me showing my National Health Service spectacles and my school cap.

I began work for the union as soon as I possibly could in the mid-Sixties. The issue that most stirred me in those days could have been any one thing. I was opposed to nuclear weapons. I am opposed to basic human needs such as housing, or utilities like water, gas or electricity being used for private profit. But the one single issue that drove me now as it did then is the issue of low pay. Low pay which means people have to scratch and scrape to exist from week to week. Low pay which demeans. Low pay which scars.

But not, of course, for all. Just for some. Sky-high incomes for others. We've got shortage among plenty. We've got poverty amidst wealth.

For 100 years some have stood for a statutory national minimum wage below which no man, woman, black or white, young or old should be exploited.

And I want to put on record our profound thanks to those pioneers and I hope nobody minds if I specially mention our dear comrades Alan Fisher and Bernard Dix.

Through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties we began to gain support, though as late as 1983 I had a drubbing at the Scottish TUC for daring to voice demands for a minimum wage. Not until two years later at the 1985 Labour Party conference and in the following year, 1986, at the TUC conference did we win the whole movement to our cause. Unison's evidence to the Low Pay Commission dispelled the myth that a minimum wage will cost jobs - yet we still hear the whingeing voices of those who would deny a living wage to all. As Winston Churchill said - the employer who cannot afford to pay a decent living wage should not be an employer. Now for the first time in history we're on the brink of that new law and I for one am not going to tell those many millions that they haven't even had a small victory, because they have and it is our victory. That law is massively important. But the rate, of course, is another thing. Because pounds 3.60 an hour is the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission. There was even talk that the Government may water that down. But pounds 3.60 at the end of the 20th century in this, one of the richest nations on earth? Surely that can't be fair, that cannot be right, that cannot be our future.

And the great sadness, of course, is that even at that level over two million of our brothers and sisters will actually get pay increases. That's how bad things are.

We fought, as well, very hard so that young people were not discriminated against. We actually beat down the absurd suggestion made by the Government that if you are under 26 years old you would not get that minimum wage. What a way to win friends amongst the young! That cannot be fair.

Our position is clear. It doesn't matter how young you are, it doesn't matter how old you are, if you are doing the job you get the proper wage. You don't have it watered down.

There's much to be made clearer. Take contractors, for example. Are they going to be able to use the minimum wage to undermine directly employed public services? We would say that cannot be so and we've also got to make sure so that, unlike in some other countries, the minimum wage doesn't just sit there and get an increase every five or 10 years or when there's a presidential election approaching.

The minimum wage should not be used as a political football. We must make sure it's enforced properly, and isn't simply ignored by employers, as the old wages council edicts were in the past.

We haven't seen the eradication of poverty pay. My life's work and yours has been dedicated to eradicating poverty pay. All we've got is a staging post. We cannot and we will not rest there.

But we can say loud and clear, so that they can hear us: Tony, Gordon, make no mistake whatsoever; because the minimum wage has been introduced it does not mean that Unison will accept that rate.

We have a formula of half male median earnings, and will continue to argue for that in the future, until such time as we don't get just a minimum wage but a decent minimum wage.

Conference unite.