Monday, 3 November 2014

Living Wage Week #2: An historical dimension


Walk around the streets in my neighbourhood and the ghosts of Living Wage campaigns past lurk on every corner.

Getting on the Tube at Mile End I remember that on 12th June 1381 workers from Essex and Kent camped in fields nearby before meeting King Richard II over the river in Blackheath in a bid to end serfdom.

Walking through Stepney, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green I'm reminded of the brave match-women who in 1888 led the strike against the appalling conditions and pay in the Bryant and May match-factory - a building still standing in Bow today. Many of the match workers and their families lived in the streets around me. Not only did the strike result in pay rises and improved conditions but it paved a way for the Great Dock Strike a year later. That strike led to improved pay for over 100,000 dock workers. As a Salvation Army officer in the East End I can't help thinking about my forbears who during the strike provided 195,000 meals for the Docker's families - an intervention that was crucial to victory. A Salvation Army band is said to have marched side by side with Cardinal Manning and union leaders at the head of the dockers' march.

And so it seems apt that the current Living Wage campaign, begun in 2001, has the same East End roots. It also involves the same coalition of union, faith and workers. The Guardian reported yesterday that 60,000 workers have so far benefitted from this campaign.

Today at City Hall, the new Living Wage rates will be announced. No doubt we'll hear some employers, like the match factory and dock owners before them, claim its too much to pay. But for me, I'll cheer for every penny that goes into the pocket of the cleaner, the security guard, the care worker and the kitchen assistant.

Here's a short film about The Salvation Army's response to the plight of the match-workers in 1888:

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