Up to 8,000 Glasgow City Council workers, members of the GMB and Unison, took part in last week’s two-day equal pay strike.
For 48 hours only emergency cover was available in home care services. Primary schools and nursery schools were closed. Secondary schools were open, but without a school-meals service.
Workers in Glasgow’s four refuse and recycling centres refused to cross picket lines, bringing refuse collection to a halt for the duration of the strike. Some parking attendants and museum and libraries staff also refused to cross picket lines.
The strike – the largest equal pay strike in British history – attracted messages of support and media coverage from around the world. Service-users and their families backed the strike, despite the problems which it created for them.
A tweet from a refuse worker summed up the feelings of his 600 fellow union members who refused to cross picket lines:
“I feel very privileged to support our GMB sisters in this monumental fight about equal pay and feel very humbled by their messages of support. This is what a union is: coming together we are stronger to get what is right and just.”
The GMB described a meeting with City Council officials the day after the strike as “positive and constructive” and as the start of “meaningful negotiations”. The trade unions and Action4Equality would now be “moving forward in good faith and with optimism”.
Although – or maybe even because – the focus of the fight for equal pay has shifted from strike action to negotiations, some of the broader issues raised by the strike merit further exploration.
The Workforce Pay and Benefits Review (WPBR), which was meant to remedy pay discrimination but in fact further institutionalised it, was approved by the City Council Executive Committee on 13th October 2006. (Available here)
Unison and the GMB both state that they opposed the WPBR from the outset. This is consistent with the document put before the Council Executive Committee. It refers to ongoing consultation with the unions. But it makes no mention of any agreement with them.
But on what basis did Unison and the GMB oppose the WPBR?
On 24 October 2006 Unison issued a press release entitled “Unison calls for rejection of Glasgow’s pay review”. But the main – almost sole – focus of the press release is the lack of pay protection for (mainly male) employees, not the WPBR’s inbuilt discrimination against women. (Available here.)
The press release announced a strike ballot. The minutes of the City Council Executive Committee of 8th December 2006 record the withdrawal of Unison’s strike threat – because the Council had ceded ground to its demand for pay protection for (mainly male) employees. (Available here.)
There is no record on the internet of the GMB’s initial response to the WPBR. But two years later, in 2008, the Court of Appeal found the GMB ‘guilty’ of indirect discrimination against women members employed by Middlesbrough Council.
The GMB had failed to pursue their equal pay claim, settled for less than the women were entitled to, refused to back legal proceedings in support of equal pay, and “manipulated” its women members into accepting the Council’s offer in 2005 through “a marked economy of the truth”.
In theory, the GMB in Glasgow in 2006 could have been qualitatively different from the GMB in Middlesbrough in 2005. In reality, this was highly unlikely.
In fact, it was arguably the Court of Appeal judgement of 2008 which finally ‘woke up’ the GMB and forced it to confront issues of local government pay discrimination.
The GMB and Unison put major resources into last week’s strike. But a more detailed analysis of their record might conclude that their response to the WPBR in the years immediately following 2006 did not display the same level of vigour.
This is underlined by the role of Action4Equality, created by solicitor Stephan Cross. For many years past Cross has specialised in equal pay claims. It was Cross who represented the GMB women members in Middlesbrough in the legal proceedings against their own union.
Of the 12,000 equal pay claims currently outstanding against Glasgow City Council, two thirds are Cross’s clients and only one third are represented by Unison or the GMB. This is not what one would expect if the unions had been in total opposition to the WPBR from the outset.
In fact, although Action4Equality and the GMB/Unison are currently united in pursuit of a negotiated settlement of the equal pay claims, Action4Equality’s record is one of denouncing Glasgow City Council unions. In May of 2017, for example, its blogsite posted:
“The unions in Glasgow should be thoroughly ashamed of their behaviour in relation to equal pay.
While Unison was warmly welcoming the pay protection decision from the Court of Session in May 2017, back in December 2006 Glasgow Unison was threatening industrial action to secure special treatment for bonus-earning traditional male jobs.
[The Unison press release welcoming the Court of Session judgement] demonstrates why the trade unions have lost all credibility over equal pay in Glasgow, and elsewhere, because they’ve been caught out saying one thing then doing another time and time again.
If you ask me, Brasso would be the ideal gift for polishing up their brass necks.”
The SNP’s initial response to last week’s strike was to denounce it – vehemently. SNP Council Leader Susan Aitken claimed that the strike was pointless and that members had been misled by their unions.
Individual SNP councillors waded in with more denunciations. They accused the unions of having a political agenda – attacking the SNP-controlled council while having done nothing when Labour ran it – and of causing hardship for those most in need of Council services.
Council officials announced that negotiations with the unions would be suspended as long as the strike had not been called off. When refuse workers refused to cross picket lines during the strike, a Council official announced that legal action would be taken (using the Tories’ anti-union laws).
But by the time of the strike itself, the SNP City Council leadership had worked out that this was bad politics and struck a much more conciliatory note. In the SNP’s in-house newspaper “The National” Susan Aitken wrote:
“Whatever opinion may be held about the merits of the strike action, the thousands of women who exercised their right to withdraw their labour as part of the campaign towards delivering equal pay highlighted the value of the crucial work they do for this city and its people.”
And SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “While I wish the strike wasn’t happening, I have nothing but admiration for the women involved. However, I feel contempt for a Labour Party expressing solidarity now when, in power, they took these women to court for denying equal pay."
The threat of using the Tories’ anti-union laws against refuse workers who had refused to cross picket lines was also quickly abandoned and replaced by a letter to the trade unions expressing concern about their actions.
Instinctively, the SNP had lashed out at the trade unions and allowed council officials to threaten them with the Tories’ anti-union laws. Only an intervention by more tactically astute figures in the SNP led to a more conciliatory approach and a focus on the obvious target:
The record in power (2006 to 2017) of three successive Labour administrations in Glasgow City Chambers, successively led by Stephen Purcell, Gordon Matheson and Frank McAveety, which undermined support for the strike from other sections of the Labour Party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted in support of the strike:
“I send my solidarity to women council workers in Glasgow who go on strike today to demand equal pay. They are the carers, cleaners and caterers who are society’s unsung heroes. When they go on strike, it’s our duty to support them.”
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard also tweeted in support of the strike:
“I send solidarity to the thousands of Glasgow women who are striking in their fight for justice. These courageous women write their chapter in the history of the labour movement. They have the support and the solidarity of the Scottish Labour Party in doing so.”
And Scottish Labour General Secretary Brian Roy tweeted:
“An SNP council using Thatcherite, pernicious anti-trade-union measures to break up the equal pay Glasgow women’s strike. The mask has well and truly slipped. Disgraceful.”
But there was no getting away from the record of the three Labour administrations.
They had created the WPBR (scrapped by the SNP), created arms-length companies such as Cordia to block equal pay claims (brought back in-house by the SNP), pursued legal proceedings to stop equal pay claims (abandoned by the SNP), and refused to open negotiations with the unions (commenced, however tardily, by the SNP).
And in 2014 it was a Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council which did not merely threaten to use the Tory anti-union laws but actually went to the Court of Session to try to win an injunction against Unison for supposedly organising secondary action.
(In fact, all that Unison had organised a routine lobby of the City Chambers. The application for an injunction was laughed out of court by the judges.)
McAveety, who remained Labour Group leader after Labour lost control of the City Council last year, has yet to apologise to the women workers who were denied equal pay by his administration and by preceding administrations.
In fact, his Twitter account failed to even mention, never mind support, last week’s strike. The same applies to a broader layer of Labour right-wingers.
Glasgow Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) Johann Lamont and Kate Watson, for example, were amongst the many who thought that Britain’s biggest ever equal pay strike – in the city where they hope to stand for election – was not even worthy of mention, never mind active support.
Those responsible for the Labour-controlled City Council’s eleven-year-long struggle to deny low-paid women workers equal pay are an albatross around the neck of the Labour Party in Glasgow.
So too are PPCs who prefer to try and cover up the failure of Labour administrations rather than stand on picket lines and demonstrate in solidarity with striking women workers.
Last week’s equal pay strike was not just an inspiring event in terms of trade union history.
It should also be an inspiration to Labour Party members to call to account the councillors and their hangers-on who have brought the Labour Party into disrepute through their actions in the period 2006-17 and their inaction on 23 and 24 October of this year.