The Unite Union has reacted to the Government’s miserly adjustment to the minimum wage by initiating a referendum on tying the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage.
The principle behind the referendum is a good one. Indexing the minimum wage to 66% would be a huge step towards making sure our lowest paid workers are able to earn a living wage and would also reduce the need for the state to subsidise low wages through government transfers. It also has the backing of the Council of Trade Unions and is the level recommended by both the International Labour Organisation and the 1973 Royal Commission into Social Security.
But as sound as the principle might be, the decision by Unite to go off on its own and call a referendum strikes me as poorly thought out grandstanding that risks doing the cause more harm than good.
Because the reality is gathering the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to hold a referendum isn’t an easy task, as the pro-smacking lobby will attest. To have any chance of success a referendum like this would need the full backing of the CTU and its 360,000 affiliated members, and even then it would be a major organising effort stretching over a period of years.
Coming from a small and severely underresourced union which has (at generous estimates) no more than a couple of thousand fee-paying members this is little more than irresponsible flag-waving that risks tarnishing the entire movement by its failure. And, as well-intentioned as Unite might be, that’s the last thing the wider movement needs right now.
I’m all for referenda – let’s just make sure we do them properly.