The Liberal Moralism of the Living Wage Movement

Founded in 2012 and spearheaded by the Food and Service Workers Union (now E Tū), the Living Wage Movement (LWM) as a concept was transplanted almost wholesale from British and US social movements of similar names.

A living wage, according to the Living Wage Movement’s website, is “[…]the income necessary to provide workers and their families with the basic necessities of life.” As of September 2020, it sits at $22.10 while minimum wage is $18.90.

To the LWM’s credit, the message is simple, popular, and has clearly struck a chord with many workers – they now have a membership base and several participating employers in just about every major city across the country. In addition, unions have taken the broad popularity of the slogan and organised real action towards it. The noise drummed up by the LWM has clearly been useful even to those outside the movement itself. September’s bus drivers’ settlement organised by First and the Tramways Union, for instance, included the extension of the living wage to all drivers. Even if nothing else, the movement has effectively raised the minimum standards for what it takes to be a ‘good’ employer.

It has seen some major successes too – earlier this year 17 banks across the country began paying the living wage. This said, any hope that it may spur serious change nationwide is prevented by its dogmatic adherence to a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, rather than industrial action.

The LWM’s model for enacting change is focused upon moral persuasion rather than industrial organising. This presupposes that those who carry our society – minimum wage or ‘essential’ workers – are incapable of the strength or agency to enact change themselves. This is, of course, not true. Industrial action, even on a small scale, carried out by minimum wage workers, is perhaps the most effective way of improving conditions in the near future.

After all, I suppose, being seen in the eyes of employers as a load of angry workers might scare away vast swathes of petty bourgeoisie who make up the bulk of employers affiliated with the LWM. For this reason the LWM positions itself as being of no threat to profits – the handy ‘Becoming a Living Wage Employer’ pamphlet places prime importance on how the living wage might be good for business. The section covering why it might be good for workers is nearly a complete repeat of the one before it, with gems including “Boosts morale and sense of value to their workplace.”

This fundamental problem – reliance on moralism – is compounded by the broad church that leads the LWM. Their membership and national governance is made up of three streams: community/secular (in practice, advocacy groups), union, and religious groups. In this tripartite agreement, class is inevitably removed from the movement’s outlook. Instead of understanding and utilising the inherent class antagonism that exists between workers and their bosses, thousands of independent moral actors try to persuade away one of the fundamental components of capitalism.

Moralism as a central component of a workers’ rights group indicates that the organisation isn’t led by the workers themselves. The LWM’s leadership have admirable aims, but their reach exceeds their grasp. They are beholden to the fancy of the bosses rather than the needs and demands of workers.

Assata Shakur perhaps summed it up best –

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them”

The fact that some blue-collar workers, most notably cleaners, have been been able organise so effectively within the LWM highlights that the wage increase that it gives is objectively in working-class interests. The fact that all New Zealand banks and representatives of big business have also got on board shows that the system stability granted by this higher wage floor is also in the interests of monopoly capital and its class peace. The challenge for social movement unionism will come when that class collaborationism is no longer viable.