Bolton council last week held a cheerful public ceremony where it handed out cheques to 400 workers. The cheques were part of the single status deal to sort out unequal pay.
The low paid women workers, while getting back payments of up to £8,000 each, got less than they were legally entitled to. The wages of refuse collectors were cut to pay for the deal.
Staffordshire council last week scrapped its single status plan. Workers had held several large protests over plans that would have seen 25 percent of the workforce facing cuts of up to £15,000.
The council admitted the protests were behind their decision. They now have to redo the job evaluation for the entire workforce by 1 April.
The single status agreement is in chaos. Only about a third of councils have reached agreements. The estimate for how much is owed varies, but local government employers think the amount owed in back pay could be as much as £5 billion.
The agreement was signed in 1997 by local government employers and national trade unions. It followed a series of successful employment tribunals over equal pay.
Typically, women were doing jobs of equal value to male manual workers, and had been on the same pay grade as them for many years. But they were not eligible for bonus payments that the men received, and in some cases were getting 40 percent less.
Single status deals are supposed to deliver a common pay scale for all jobs and the harmonisation of conditions.
In North Lanarkshire, where the evaluation process has been completed, school librarians have been put down a grade. The basic salary of around £20,000 will be kept for three years then drop to £17,000. Two of the 27 school librarians have already resigned. A system claiming to deliver equal pay is cutting the pay of already low paid women.
At the end of last year, after threatened strike action, Glasgow council did a deal with the unions over job evaluations. But over 9,900 workers are appealing. In Aberdeen the unions are divided over the council's offer – Unison voted for, the GMB and T&G against.
Many cuts being pushed through by local authorities are to pay for single status deals.
The failure of the unions to move forward on the issue has meant a number of 'no win, no fee' lawyers moving in to fill the gap.
In some cases the lawyers take up to 25 percent of any payout. Some 8,000 claims have been made against local authorities in the north east of England alone, resulting in compensation in excess of £100 million.
In some cases, where single status agreements have gone through and it is too late to sue the council, workers are suing the unions. In Scotland there are 17,000 equal pay claims at employment tribunals – over 3,500 are against the unions.
The group Action 4 Equality is going round the country taking up claims. Its frontman, Mark Irvine, formerly of Scottish Unison, signed single status deals on the union's behalf. The main lawyer taking on single status cases is Stefan Cross, a former Labour councillor in Newcastle. He was party to a single status deal there.
The unions in a number of councils have launched equal pay claims themselves – but it looks like a defensive measure.
The current issue of Unison U magazine says, 'Winning equal pay for all is still a key issue – and your union is working hard on it.' It adds that in local government, 'negotiations are likely to be going on now for a new pay system guaranteeing equal pay and addressing the issue of back pay'.
Lack of a national strategy and the unions' initial support for the deal has seen many union branches left to negotiate on their own to fight local authorities who want to cut costs to fund equal pay.
Cutting pay protection for existing workers, bargaining over back pay which workers are legally entitled too and negotiating over how many union members will see their pay cut is in danger of becoming the norm.
Time is running out for the unions to put up a decent fight for equal pay and against pay cuts for hundreds of thousands of workers.