The Living Wage – all in this together

We need to drop our own stereotypes and get out of our comfort zones to build alliances with others.

We need to drop our own stereotypes and get out of our comfort zones to build alliances with others

No one utterance from the coalition government has been more discredited than George Osborne’s announcement in his 2010 budget that ‘we are all in this together’.

Since that budget we’ve seen the recession deepen and when the economy has eventually started to grow the benefits have accrued to the very richest, with everyone else still feeling the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s.

But ‘all in it together’ does summarise the Living Wage approach of UNISON in the West Midlands. We’re part of a community organising project run by Citizens UK (CUK) in Birmingham that has brought together 22 civil society institutions for the common good.

We have an alliance of faith groups, education institutions (primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and HE), trade unions and migrant community organisations all working together on a common agenda to deliver social justice in Birmingham. The Living Wage is one of our priority areas to tackle.

The Living Wage is clearly a ‘bog standard’ trade union issue, but I’ve seen the power of working with others. As a trade union leader I’m seen as ‘one of the usual suspects’ when I talk about the Living Wage. But when leaders from wider community speak out on the Living Wage it makes the message all the more powerful.

It’s been wonderful to see the nuns from St Mary’s Convent, the Birmingham Methodists and the Muath Trust (a local Yemeni Muslim centre) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with leaders from the migrant community and trade unionists to speak out on the Living Wage.

In May this year we held an accountability assembly where over 400 people from the 22 partner institutions attended. We heard moving testimony from people in community on issues such as the Living Wage, the failure mental health services for young people, the devastating impact of delays in paying benefits and how young people felt about community safety.

At that assembly we made specific asks of the people with power to deliver social justice. On the Living Wage we heard the moving story from Somali born Abdinasir Ahmed and what it is like trying to bring up his family on the Minimum Wage.

After Labour took control of Birmingham City Council in 2012 its first act was to make the council a Living Wage employer and it is now the first council in the country to pay the Living Wage to externally-contracted care sector workers. The Labour-run council have said they want Birmingham to be a Living Wage city.

The photo at the top of the blog shows Rev’d David Butterworth and Abdinasir asking deputy leader of the council cllr Ian Ward to commit to publicly back CUK when we carry out any future actions on Birmingham employers to get them to pay the Living Wage. We got that commitment made in front of more than 400 people.

This is significant because there are very few councils who would agree to publicly support action on local employers councils shy away from upsetting local businesses. As we make our plans to take action on employers we can feel confident that we will have the support of the council and that in turn will make our job easier.

Whilst it is not a precondition that all partner institutions in CUK pay the Living Wage, the very fact that they are part of an alliance that is campaigning on this issue has provided its own incentive. Initially only eight of the 22 partner institutions (one of which was UNISON) were paying the Living Wage, and that is now up to 16 with commitments from five others to implement it within the next 12 – 18 months.

There are some in the labour movement who view the idea of working with faith groups with scepticism or even hostility. This is usually based around stereotypes they have of faith groups. My own experience has been nothing but positive and I’ve had my own preconceptions challenged, but equally faith leaders and other institutional leaders have said since working with UNISON that their views about trade unions have changed.

Many in the labour movement decry the fact that young people and society at large ‘don’t get’ trade unions but we need to remember others do not view us as we view ourselves, and we equally ‘don’t get’ those who could be our allies. We need to drop our own stereotypes and get out our comfort zones to build alliances with others.

There are no shortcuts to building strong alliances, it takes time and patience: it’s taken us just over two years in Birmingham to build the bedrock of our alliance. We’ve still got a long way to go to deliver on the Living Wage and our other social justice issues, but given the firm foundations we’ve built I am excited about what we could achieve over the next two years.

Ravi Subramanian is regional secretary for UNISON in the West Midlands

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