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Why women workers are still fighting to win equal wages

This article is over 5 years, 5 months old
A mass strike at Glasgow City Council last month exposed how women workers are still fighting for equality. Sarah Bates looks at how councils have got away with this for so long
Issue 2629
Strikers in Glasgow last month
Strikers in Glasgow last month (Pic: Andrew McGowan)

Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, why are women still fighting for the same rate for the job as men?

Glasgow is the site of one of the latest battles in a long-running dispute over equal pay that has rocked local authorities across Britain.

A huge strike gripped the city last month as 8,000 low paid workers staged a 48-hour walkout.

The mainly women workers are fighting for equal pay with their male colleagues in Glasgow City Council.

Proposed by the Labour government in 1997, Single Status Agreements (SSA) were an attempt to tackle historical unequal pay in councils.

For decades, work done predominately by women has been paid less than job roles filled mainly by men.

Partly this was because roles such as cleaning, catering, caring and clerical were graded low on local authorities’ pay scale.

But the biggest discrepancy came through unequal access to overtime and bonus schemes—which many workers rely on just to survive.

So, gravediggers, bin workers and road sweepers could potentially take home tens of thousands more every year than women doing equivalent work on the same pay grade.


These differences were stark. A study in 1999 found that 80 percent of male workers had bonuses, while only 1.2 percent of women did.

On the back foot, councils tried desperately to shift the blame to trade unions. They claimed that if pay was unequal, it was a result of unions negotiating it. The rollout of SSA was partly an attempt to stem the tide of equal pay claims in employment tribunals from workers often represented by “no-win, no fee” lawyers (see below).

The women that make Glasgow are striking back
The women that make Glasgow are striking back
  Read More

Problems dogged the implementation of SSA from the outset. Central government didn’t offer any extra cash to fund the pay claims—so local authority bosses tried to foist the cost of equal pay onto workers.

Some councils such as Birmingham used the rollout of SSA as an opportunity to attack workers’ pay and conditions. They tried to cut men’s wages, rather than levelling up women’s.

This was a cynical attempt to pit one group of workers against others.

Low-paid women workers, discriminated against by local authorities—often for decades—should have their pay levelled up. Other workers’ pay should not be rounded down to achieve parity.

Some councils offered the sop of “pay protection”—meaning they would only pay workers their previous wage for a few years after implementing SSA.

Despite SSA first being introduced in 1997, most councils missed the 2007 implementation deadline.

To get a resolution, lots of councils offered workers settlements in 2007 and 2008—often for amounts far below the amount they were entitled to.

The Glasgow equal pay strikes show that, for some, the battle is far from over.

And by taking to the streets, the low-paid workers of Glasgow raise the banner for equal pay and against bosses that seek to divide us.

The bungle in Birmingham

Birmingham City Council (BCC)—Britain’s biggest local authority—was the site of a set piece battle in the SSA dispute.

Some 20,000 workers in the GMB, Unison, Unite and Ucatt unions there struck for four days in 2008.

The Tory and Lib Dem-run council wanted to impose a pay deal which would have slashed many workers’ pay. Some would have lost over £10,000 a year.

Workers were sent threatening letters telling them to accept new contracts or lose their jobs.

The council simultaneously claimed it needed to reduce the wage bill to afford the SSA claims, and refused to pay the six years’ worth of back pay. A 2010 employment tribunal in Birmingham exposed examples of how the discrimination worked. Many workers won tens of thousands through this process.

For instance, a cleaner on grade 1—the lowest-paid grade—was earning £11,577, and on the same grade as a street sweeper. But because this sweeper had bonuses and overtime, he earned £32,000.

Or a care assistant and refuse driver—both on grade 4—

where the highest paid driver earned £50,000 and the care worker just £12,291.

The final bill for the council was estimated to be at least £890 million. It sold the National Exhibition Centre in 2015 for £307 million to help pay its debts

Strikes are the way to win

Part of the reason women are still having to fight is because of a lack of leadership from unions that boast millions of members between them.

For years, unions were engaged in legal proceedings. Activists couldn’t discuss openly their local campaigns at union conferences or public meetings.

The battle was waged through the courts rather than on picket lines.

Stefan Cross QC is the leading lawyer representing the Glasgow workers—but it’s far from his first equal pay case.

That was an employment tribunal in 1997, when he won £1 million for 2,000 school meals staff in Redcar, north east England.

Working for their GMB union, Cross successfully argued that women had taken pay cuts that men were not asked to take.

He won again in 2005—but this time fighting the GMB union.

Cross represented women workers in Middlesbrough who took their union to court because, they said, the union focused more on pay protection for men than on back pay for women.

Trade unions such as Unison and the GMB should call more dates for strikes in Glasgow. Collective action is an opportunity to build a more confident and combative layer inside every workplace.

Ripped off by sexist system

The SSA fight shows some of the ways that bosses can get away with paying women less—but it doesn’t show the full picture.

In some cases, jobs seen as “women’s work” are low-paid because bosses don’t take into consideration the skills and experience they require.

Under capitalism, caring for children or other relatives is a big part of many women’s lives.

So paid caring roles, for example, reinforce the sexist idea that it’s women’s place in society to perform these jobs.

And many women take on part-time employment to fit round childcare or other domestic responsibilities.


This affects pension contributions and access to benefits.

Women are also less likely to be in top, higher paid jobs. They make up 47 percent of the workforce, but only 35 percent of managers, directors and senior officials.

This year, British firms and public sector bodies with more than 250 employees were for the first time forced to publish what they pay men and women.

The results show that almost eight in ten pay men more than they pay women.

The gender pay gap sits at 18.1 percent—which means from 11 November women effectively work the rest of year for free.

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