Last week, forty years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, some 4,500 women workers won a case at an employment tribunal against Birmingham council.
The women – mainly cleaners and care assistants – were excluded from bonuses that had been paid to male workers that were worth up to 160 percent of their basic pay.
A minor media feeding frenzy followed as lawyer Stefan Cross took all the credit and the Guardian newspaper used the case to explain what its columnist called the “institutional sexism” of the union movement.
For the record, around 80 percent of the women who won their case last week were represented by the Unison and GMB unions.
The case came about because of the “single status agreement”.
Local government employers and the unions signed the agreement in 1997. Typically, women were doing jobs of equal value to male manual workers, but were denied equal earnings.
Single status deals were supposed to deliver a common pay scale for all jobs and the harmonisation of conditions. But the government refused to give local authorities extra funds to pay for the deal so it normally meant that one group of workers’ pay was cut to pay for women’s equal pay.
Every authority was supposed to implement a deal by 1 April 2007, yet about fifth of councils have still not reached agreements.
The unions were terrified of the legal implications – which supposedly meant that for long periods of time it could not even be discussed at their meetings. They abandoned a national strategy and left their branches to fight local authorities alone.
Far too often a deal that was meant to be about equal pay saw attempts to cut other women workers’ pay.
Some union officials put protecting Labour councils – and men’s wages – before the interests of women workers.
But the real divide was between those who wanted to fight around the slogan of “Equal pay now – without cuts in wages, jobs or services” and those who would not.
The failure of the national unions to head up the fight meant a number of “no win, no fee” lawyers moved in to fill the gap.
In some cases lawyers take up to 25 percent of any payout.
Where single status agreements went through and it was too late to sue the council, workers sued the unions. At one point about a quarter of the 17,000 equal pay claims at employment tribunals in Scotland – over 3,500 – were against unions.
The group Action 4 Equality went around the country taking up claims. Its frontman, Mark Irvine, formerly of Unison Scotland, had previously signed single status deals on the union’s behalf.
The main lawyer taking on single status cases is Stefan Cross. Cross is a former Labour councillor in Newcastle. He helped draw up the single status deal there.
The reason the Birmingham case happened last week was that council had been forced to retreat after workers struck in 2008 against the single status deal.
Up to 20,000 workers joined the biggest strike in the city in 30 years.
The council then offered back pay – up to £42,000 for care assistants, up to £33,000 for home care workers and up to £40,000 for school cooks. This was a big step forward and, although Unison recommended that workers campaign for more, most workers accepted the deal.
Those at last week’s hearing included workers who followed Unison advice and fought on.
Just as in Birmingham, where the unions threatened or took strike action, they normally got better deals. Where they didn’t, many thousands lost pay.
The employment tribunal decision should mean that workers in other councils also receive extra money. But instead councils are predicting dire cuts because of the ruling.
If there are attempts to push through such cuts, they should be met by strikes – and this time it should be a national campaign.