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Trade unions must be at the heart of the debate on living standards

Trade unions must be at the heart of the debate on living standards

Class, unionstogether and the Trade Union Group of MPs (TUG) are collaborating on a series of regional events to discuss the living standards crisis and the steps that should be taken to address it. We’re calling it The Great British Rip-off. I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel discussion in Newcastle on Thursday 13 March. You can get more details of the event here.

Class was present at the Resolution Foundation’s living standards audit this week, which found that the living standards of the typical household will still be 3.5% lower in 2018-19 than they were at the start of the financial crisis of 2008. Chief Executive Gavin Kelly said “by 2018 we expect the typical household to still be worse off than they were before the crisis.”

It comes as no surprise to Class that households are feeling the pinch: in November 2013 we commissioned a poll which showed that nearly 4 in 5 Britons do not feel that they are personally benefiting from the so-called recovery. 

The debate around living standards is yet to acknowledge one simple fact: trade unions are necessary for more equal societies and better living standards. As the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in 2011:

Piles of textbooks have laid out the reasons why pay for the rich has soared, while income for the rest of us has stagnated. Some lay the blame on the increase in world trade, others the spread of new technology. But one thing nearly everyone agrees has been a factor is trade unions, whose decline has coincided with a giant leap in inequality over the past quarter of a century. If workers don't or can't exercise their clout, there is little pressure on employers to improve their pay, pensions or working conditions.

At GMB we’re working on a number of initiatives to address the living standards crisis and reduce inequality. We continue to support the Low Pay Commission who set the rate for over a million workers.  We’d like to see the Low Pay Commission work with the High Pay Commission to look at narrowing the gap between the highest and the lowest paid workers. As part of the Commission’s consultation on the National Minimum Wage (NMW) in 2012, we made several recommendations, including:

  • Adult rate for the NMW to be paid at 18 instead of 21. Failing that, the youth and development rates should increase by the same percentage as the adult rate.
  • Increase the apprentice minimum wage at least in line with inflation
  • Interns should be paid at least the NMW and there should be targeted enforcement
  • Show hourly pay rate on payslips and have more awareness campaigns to ensure that young workers or new workers are aware of their rights
  • Maintain funding and resources to ensure effective  enforcement
  • The Labour Party should commit itself to a National Living Wage in their policy review

We’re now putting these recommendations into practice. For example, during Living Wage Week in 2013, we called upon all UK councils to join the 117 councils that have already agreed to pay a living wage. We secured the support of Rachel Reeves and Ed Miliband in the call for local authority workers to be paid a higher wage. By listening to our members’ concerns, unions are presenting solutions to the living standards crisis which will make a real and tangible difference to the lives of British people, and with our political voice we can secure the support of people who can turn those solutions into policy.

Trade unions must be a leading voice in the debate on living standards. It is our members whose living standards are falling, and it is our collective voice that can demand the right solutions for a fairer and more equal society.