Campaign for a living wage


by Ian Anderson

Working people are encouraged to accept the idea they should give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. The problem with this is that within the capitalist system – even in the most developed economies – workers do not receive fair wages. This is because the economic basis of capitalism is that the wage rates (the price of a workers’ labour power) paid by employers are less than the amount of value produced by the worker. That is inherent within capitalism, it is how the employing capitalist class makes profit form the working class.

Under genuine socialism the working class majority would control the value it produces instead of that surplus value turned into profits for private capitalists.

While socialists are in favour of getting rid of the capitalist wage system we are also integrated in collective organisation around immediate demands for improved wages. The struggle for improved wages is not just morally correct. It leads to socialist and revolutionary conclusions at junctures where capitalism can’t meet the wage needs and demands of the masses of workers. So while we can’t win a “fair wage” under capitalism, socialists must support campaigns for improved wages and should endeavour to be at the forefront. Recent ‘Living Wage’ campaigns have sought to improve wages for the growing working poor in Aotearoa.

Service-sector unions have a key role to play in campaigns for living wages, as the service sector is particularly affected by casualisation and declining real wages. In recent years, Unite (a relatively newer union for underemployed workers, with its base in the fast food sector) and the Service and Food Workers Union (a more established hospitality union, affiliated to the Labour Party) have run nationwide campaigns for a living wage.

supersizemypay pizza hut

Unite: SuperSizeMypay and $15 an hour living wage
From 2005, Unite ran a campaign under the slogan SupersizeMyPay. Organisations like Radical Youth and Workers Charter, as well as some other community and union figures supported the campaign. Along with fighting and defeating youth rates, Unite campaigned for a $12 minimum wage and secure hours of work. The union used strike actions and political pressure. At the height of the campaign the Labour-led government announced that a $12 minimum wage would not be possible until 2012. Unite and its supporters then fought under the slogan “2008 is far too late.” Despite the fact that the campaign was demanding an immediate increase to $12 per hour, it is nevertheless true that the movement was instrumental in pressuring the Labour-led government to implement a set of annual minimum wage increases which resulted in a $12 minimum wage being obtained in 2008.

In June 2009, Unite Union launched a new Living Wage campaign. This campaign was a petition for a Citizens Initiated Referendum, on the question: “Should the adult minimum wage be raised in steps over the next three years, starting with an immediate rise to $15 per hour, until it reaches 66% of the average total hourly earnings as defined in the Quarterly Employment Survey?” By demanding that minimum wages be tied to the average wage, this demand had a shelf life beyond the new minimum rate for which it was immediately calling.

Fightback (then Workers Party) comrades participated in the campaign; running community stalls, events, and distributing petitions in workplaces. Fightback members argued that the petition should be used as a tool to organise workplaces and communities, and supported the idea of starting a nationwide conversation about wages. The campaign also had the advantage of a measurable goal (successfully petitioning 10% of registered voters to initiate a referendum) in contrast to vague slogans like “Fairness at Work” the success or failure of which cannot be measured.

Unite’s campaign took to the streets to make its demands visible. In early 2010, protests in Whangarei, Auckland Central, Waitakare, Hamilton, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin targeted National MPs. Joe Carolan, national organiser of the campaign, appeared on national television confronting Prime Minister John Key.

However, this campaign failed to collect the 300,000 signatures needed for a Citizens-Initiated Referendum. Individual delegates and organisers from some of the larger unions actively supported the campaign. The NDU (now FIRST Union) presented the petition at major stop-work meetings and delegates training events. However the campaign did not draw in significant practical support from the wider official union movement. Those who participated got 210,000 signatories. Ultimately though, Unite was unable to draw together a strong enough coalition to .get enough signatories to force a referendum.

Inflation and real wages
For its 2011 election campaign, Labour adopted the “$15 an hour” slogan, notably without the demand for minimum wages to be tied to the average wage. By ignoring inflation and waiting two years to pick up the slogan, Labour defanged the original demand, as they had done prior to 2008.

Real wages have declined 25% over the last 30 years, under Labour and National governments. The term “real wages” describes the relative growth or decline of wages measured against to the price of commodities such as food. Therefore real wage measurements are useful for understanding changes in living standards. Demands at particular workplaces may be based on market conditions, industry standards, and so forth. However, at a different level socialists support broad wage reforms that reflect the impact of rising prices.

Launch - living wage aotearoa

2012-2013: Living Wage Campaign Aotearoa/NZ
In 2012 a new Living Wage Campaign Aotearoa/NZ was launched. The campaign’s key backer is the Service and Food Workers Union. This campaign does not have a particular numerical demand. It calls for a living wage relative to conditions. However a report by the Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit, commissioned by the Living Wage campaign, recommended a living wage of $18.40/hr, approximately two-thirds of the average wage.

This campaign has deliberately sought a broad coalition, and has been endorsed by a range of groups – including the Child Poverty Action Group, faith organisations, and We Are the University (WATU). The Living Wage Campaign has earned coverage in national newspapers, including a glowing editorial by progressive columnist Tapu Misa.

In mid-March 2013, tofu and soy product manufacturer Tonzu was the first employer to endorse the living wage principle of the campaign, agreeing to pay their six factory workers at least $18.40hr within a year. This will improve conditions for the six workers onsite. However, the overwhelming majority of workers cannot rely on the good will of employers. Previous living wage campaigns have succeeded due to militant action in workplaces and communities. The bulk of capitalists will only accept these demands by coercion. That coercion can take the form of pressure from organised workers and communities. It can also take the form of pressure from governments which are themselves pressured by the working class.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has argued that the worst slave-owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves. By forming friendlier relationships with slaves they prolonged the system of slavery. Reformists, as well as some far-sighted capitalists, argue that higher wages are a stimulus for the economy. While that may be true, increased demand will not resolve the inherent problems of capitalism, including its cyclical boom-bust nature. Revolutionary socialists argue that in the battle for higher wages, we must prepare the broader struggle for a democratically planned economy. The working class cannot rely on partnership with employers.


  1. universal income or you are still slaves.

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