In the final part of her series on women workers in struggle, Jane Hardy talks to women who organised and took part in a successful strike over equal pay.
An explosion of anger from women council workers in Glasgow culminated in a two day strike in October 2018 that closed down the city. The women had run out of patience when the Scottish National Party (SNP) minority council failed to deliver on its promise of rectifying equal pay cases that had lasted over a decade.
In 2006 a new pay and rewards system had been introduced. Ever since then successive Labour-dominated councils in Glasgow had tried to circumvent equal pay by buying women off with paltry sums, setting up an arms-length firm to impose inferior pay and conditions and then spending millions of pounds in the court defending their flawed scheme rather than addressing the equality issues.
In the early days the main unions representing the women council workers in Glasgow did not cover themselves in glory. At worst they signed up to pay structures that were clearly discriminatory and entrenched unequal pay, and at best they showed a lack of leadership and dragged their heels in fighting these cases for equal pay. However, as we shall see, new energetic and committed organisers, branch chairs and reinvigorated branches from Unison and GMB played a crucial role in the success of the strike.
Entrenching unequal pay
To understand the way that unequal pay was entrenched in Glasgow we have to go back to the new collective agreement, signed in 1997 between the Labour government and trade unions, aimed at harmonising the conditions of employment of local government workers in the United Kingdom. This national agreement, covering 1.5 million workers, harmonised conditions for manual and white collar workers in local government for the first time.
The rollout of these Single Status Agreements (SSAs) was partly an attempt to stem the tide of equal pay claims in employment tribunals. For decades the division of labour in local councils meant that work predominantly done by women — cleaning, catering and clerical work — was graded lower than jobs that were done mainly by men. The biggest discrepancy came through unequal access to overtime and bonus schemes, from which gravediggers, refuse collectors and road sweepers (mainly men) were more easily able to benefit. The outcome was that workers in these jobs could potentially take home tens of thousands of pounds in additional income annually.
In Glasgow the conflict over the pay and reward system had stretched over more than a decade. In 2005 Glasgow’s Labour council tried to protect itself from an avalanche of equal pay claims by bussing workers to leisure centres just before Christmas, where they were corralled into signing a piece of paper that accepted a settlement that had no regard for length of service and was far below their legal entitlement. Many women signed but a few hundred held out.
A second tactic by the council for circumventing equal pay and driving down pay and conditions was the setting up of an arm’s-length organisation — Cordia — in 2009 for some jobs and services. In January 2015, in an attack on the contracts of carers similar to that mounted by Birmingham council, the employers proposed a three shift system that meant in effect being at work for 14 hours for only eight hours’ pay. The workers would end up having odd amounts of unpaid time in between clients that meant hanging around bus stops to kill time.
A perfect storm
The issue of equal pay was a long running sore. Cases taken to court in 2011 and 2015 were long and convoluted and resulted in rulings against claimants. However, in September 2017 three elements came together to make a perfect storm and trigger an equal pay campaign.
First, two rulings of the Court of Session (the highest civil court in Scotland) in May and August 2017 ruled against the exclusion of women from bonuses and that Glasgow council had not demonstrated that its job evaluation scheme was fit for purpose.
Second, there was a change in the political composition of Glasgow council. Labour had been the largest party on the council since 1945 and had governed uninterrupted since 1980, but in May 2017 the SNP won minority control of the Glasgow City council with 39 out of 85 seats. After much lobbying by the trade unions before the elections, the SNP manifesto promised to resolve these longstanding equal pay issues.
The third element was the role of equal pay lawyer Stefan Cross and his firm, Action4Equality, that had a long history in fighting for equal pay. At an employment tribunal in 1997 Cross won £1 million for 2,000 school meals staff (mainly women) in Cleveland, North East England. In 2005 in Glasgow he recruited and represented a group of women who had refused to settle with the council. After getting settlements for this first wave of women thousands of others signed on as clients in a second wave of claimants. The Facebook group they formed cascaded information to other women who in turn made demands for action on their unions.
Led by the members
Buoyed by the decision of the court in May and August 2017, stewards, activists and organisers in Unison started a campaign that involved and was led by the members. There was an apparent victory in January 2018 when the SNP minority council voted not to appeal the decisions of the Court of Session and agreed to begin negotiations to settle the equal pay cases. Unison and the GMB union increased pressure on the council and ramped up the momentum of the campaign with a demonstration held on 10 February 2018 at which thousands of women marched in suffragette costumes with placards that read “Equal Pay or We Walk Away”.
Whether by incompetence or deliberate heel dragging, Glasgow council failed to agree a timescale and plan for settling the equal pay claims. The anger of the women who had been waiting years to get justice boiled over — 200 of the women with claims submitted had already died waiting for their cases to be resolved. A consultative ballot in May 2018 showed resounding support for action.
The GMB and Unison organisers describe the huge pressure that they were under from below as their women members called for action to force the council to settle their claims. The Unison organiser describes how at one meeting she was met with a packed room of angry women chanting “Strike, strike, strike” and demanding that they were kept “strike ready”.
In September 2018 the ballot for strike action showed the depth of support for action. The Unison ballot of educational workers returned a 99 percent vote in favour of strike action. The Unison and GMB ballots of home carers, cleaners and caterers in Cordia also returned a 99 percent “yes” vote. These hugely impressive votes did not simply happen — support was built through a system of stewards in workplaces and through thousands of phone calls made by activists at the headquarters of Unison and the GMB.
The build up to the two-day strike in October was met with huge enthusiasm by the women. Both Unison and the GMB had strike headquarters as a space for activists to organise. The Unison headquarters was open and busy round the clock before the strike — and afterwards the walls were adorned with pictures of the strike. The GMB took over a deserted bank next to its offices. Three months after the strike it was still filled with placards and with white boards with hand written rosters for making phone calls and picket duty.
The participation of women, who had never been on strike before, and their self-organisation from below was remarkable. They organised their own picket lines by phoning up members and forming WhatsApp groups in different areas of the city to ensure that all workplaces were covered and members could be based in their communities.
Solidarity was critical to organising the strike and the victory that it brought about — but there were a number of hurdles. The GMB and Unison historically had a fractious relationship in the city. There was suspicion between the unions and the equal pay lawyer Stefan Cross, whose firm was representing a large number of the women claimants. And then there was the restrictive legislation that made secondary picketing illegal.
The GMB had a new leadership and a new union organiser. The previous legal firm was sacked and “after some tough conversations” the union’s legal team worked with Unison’s and Action4Equality to coordinate the claims. The mood among the women was that they wanted action and were not interested in previous turf wars.
In Unison there were regular campaign meetings and a comprehensive shop stewards structure built from previous struggles, which meant it could coordinate action across the seven job families affected by the dispute (cleaners, caterers, care workers, social workers, educational support workers).
Despite the illegality of secondary picketing, refuse workers supported the strike by refusing to cross picket lines, losing two days’ wages. The GMB organiser reported that on the day of the strike she had an angry phone call from the shop steward of the parks and recreation department demanding that pickets were put in place so that staff there could support the strike by not crossing picket lines.
Lessons and legacies
In February Glasgow council ratified a package of payments worth £548 million to compensate approximately 16,000 equal pay claims. Mary Dawson, branch chair of Glasgow Unison said: “This is an important step in a long campaign for equal pay for women and men working for Glasgow City Council. The agreement will represent compensation for the pay lost due to discriminatory pay and grading system in place for over twelve years.”
According to Cross some of the sums of money will be life changing. The strike was a huge victory and is a landmark dispute.
The GMB organiser talked about having to overcome pessimism in the union about organising these women workers and having to confront negative attitudes, such as “We won’t find them, they won’t come to meetings.” To the contrary, similar to the Birmingham care workers, anger at injustice coupled with systematic organisation by the unions brought women in their hundreds to meetings in packed rooms and threw up new layers of activists and leaders. One of the activists talked about the way that the strike had empowered her:
“I had been working abroad and had good jobs…when my marriage failed I came back with two children in 2006 and had to start at the bottom… I am a support for learning worker…but I felt browbeaten and worthless…this strike has meant coming alive again…feeling empowered…they can’t ignore us a anymore.”
Despite the timidity of the unions in calling for secondary action, ordinary union members simply defied anti-trade union legislation and came out in solidarity. Entanglement in a labyrinth of legal proceedings meant that campaigns could not be discussed at union meetings or conferences. The turning point was when the dispute came out of the “legal theatre” and onto the streets, and the battle was waged on the picket lines rather than in the courts. Unison organiser Jennifer McCarey sums this up: “Collective action builds a more confident and combative layer in every workplace…we inspired each other, we raised the bar. The strikers became something different…they became campaigners, fighters.”