Birmingham council bosses have been forced into a significant climbdown over their attempt to cut wages in the name of equal pay.
Having spent 18 months refusing to seriously negotiate with the unions and attempting to force through a rotten single status pay deal, they have now been forced to the negotiating table.
It is a sign of the pressure caused by strike action that virtually nothing is now off limits in the new talks, a position that reflects an important step forward.
No council in Britain that has gone so far down the road to imposing a single status deal has then retreated this far.
The brilliant strike action by tens of thousands of council workers last month, and the threat of a repeated strike on Tuesday of this week, blocked the council’s attempts at bribery and intimidation.
Despite trying to dismiss workers and re-employ them on new contracts, the council has had to look again at key areas of the deal.
Bizarrely, only about 20,000 of the 40,000 workers affected by the pay and grading review have been told exactly how their pay will be altered or sent new contracts to sign.
Single status deals were supposed to bring equal pay for low paid women. Instead, many women face pay cuts.
The original Birmingham plan would mean 110 women losing more than £10,000 a year, and across the council there are twice as many women as men facing pay cuts.
That all of this is up for renegotiation is good. However there needs to be a real shift from council bosses – not just of tone but of substance, and in days not weeks.
There needs to be a clear commitment that they will put more money into the regrading.
One area of the talks that should be of concern regards the framework of reducing the number of workers losing money to 7 percent of the workforce and limiting their wage cuts to 15 percent of their salary.
For workers who have been facing thousands of pounds of wage cuts any improvement will be welcome. But the unions should not enter into the talks on the basis of 7 percent of workers losing money, but only of no workers losing out.
The fight for equal and fair pay has mobilised people and brought them together.
The refusal to leave groups of workers isolated or allow the council to divide workers across sectors has been central to mobilising.
Council boss Alan Rudge isn’t exactly showing good grace in his climbdown in coming to the negotiating table. But he has pointed to a danger for workers in Birmingham.
Rudge attributed the suspension of the strike to a five hour meeting with union officials on Friday. He said, “We had three good regional officers in that meeting, and they were very constructive.
“In the past, we’ve seen this issue being used as a political football, with pressure from external forces. That wasn’t the case this time.”
In the run up to the talks it has emerged that some people in the Unison union at a national level may also have been in discussion with the council.
They are clearly hoping that a slightly improved deal will be accepted in a ballot if fewer people lose money.
There are some at the top of the unions who just want the single status issue to go away. They are more interested in the views of Labour cabinet ministers than those of their members.
The Birmingham talks should be under the control of members – not those at the top of the union. It is the local leadership that has had to stand up to council lies and intimidation – and they are the best placed to fight for a good deal.
The heart of the dispute in Birmingham has been the involvement of the membership.
It was workers across unions and council departments coming together that gave the dispute the strength to get this far.
Making sure that level of involvement continues will be vital to ensuring a good result.
The talks are due to end on 12 March. The unions are organising consultation meetings for 13 and 14 March.
Workers should make sure they are built as serious mass meetings involving thousands of workers to keep up the momentum to get fair and equal pay for all.