Working class women make Glasgow. That’s the message this week’s stunning 48-hour strike sent out as Glasgow City Council (GCC) services ground to a halt.
Some 8,000 strikers in education, care, cleaning and catering services walked out in a battle for pay justice that has lasted 12 years. Hundreds more workers struck in solidarity.
Every primary, nursery and additional needs school was closed, and a reduced “life and limb cover” was offered in adult social care.
And up to 10,000 strikers and supporters marched through the city to a strike rally on the doorstep of council office the Civic Chambers.
Unison and GMB union members are fighting GCC to get the wages they are owed after suffering from a discriminatory pay scheme. Many of the women are so low paid they work two or three jobs just to survive.
Kathy Houston was striking for the first time in her life.
On a normal day she starts her first shift at 7am as a school janitor. At 3pm she travels to her second job at another school and works for three and a half hours as a cleaning supervisor.
She told Socialist Worker that a financial settlement would let her “take a bit of pressure off”.
Kathy—who took her grandchild and great-grandchild on the strike rally— worked a third job starting at 5am until a stroke last year forced her to quit. She’s determined to get the council to “open their gobs and talk”.
“They’re worrying about paying the money but they’re quick to take council tax”, she said.
Roseanne Melrose worked as a catering assistant for 26 years. She works at both a breakfast club and a dinner club—two different jobs—because “they don’t pay me enough so I need two”.
Roseanne said, “12 years is a long time. I’m fighting for my granbairns. Woman or man, you’re doing the same job, you need the same money.”
Her school, Drumchapel High, remained open during the strike but operated without a kitchen.
She said the experience of striking was “emotional”. “It feels like Christmas,” she said. “So many people have come here to fight for us.”
The low-paid women are fighting against the Workforce Pay and Benefits Review (WPBR) job evaluation scheme that was imposed by GCC in 2006. The WPBR was supposed to make sure women and men received equal pay for jobs of the same value. But it offered extra protection for men’s bonuses and discriminated against part time workers—who are overwhelmingly women.
Action 4 Equality—the legal team representing the women—said they’ve received up to £3 an hour less than men. The final bill for GCC could reach up to £1 billion.
The first day of action on Tuesday of last week culminated in a huge strike rally organised by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).
In a powerful moment it opened with a minute’s silence for all the workers who have died during the 12 years of the pay fight.
Lynne Henderson, STUC president, said that women work “part time, full time, every time, all the time. We work at work and we work in our house”.
She added, “Equal pay is yours in the law, but until it’s yours in the bank in your purse you must stick together.”
But the most prominent voices came from striking workers.
Unison steward Lynn Marie O’Hara, a cleaning supervisor at a care home, said workers were “the invisible”.
But she told strikers, “We are incredibly visible now. We have walked away and our members made Glasgow stop.”
Speaking to Socialist Worker on a picket line the following day, Lynn Marie said the strike would make council bosses listen. “The city has been crippled,” she said. “City leaders will have to take notice.”
Many workers said this action was about much more than equal pay.
Jane, a home carer for over 18 years, said, “This is the start of us opening our mouths and the start of us saying something now.”
She pointed to worsening conditions for carers, who are mostly lone workers. Carers are out “in red weather warnings, but we still made all our calls,” she explained.
Jane said changes three years ago mean many of her colleagues work seven days on, seven days off shift patterns.
Management sold these changes as providing “continuity” to service users, but workers say up to four different carers can visit them each day. And Jane said a fight is brewing over working conditions. Safety was a big worry for many carers, particularly those who work night shifts.
Like many others, this was Jane’s first time on strike. “But we can fight for anything,” she said “We’ve got mouths now.”
Some say they’re now more determined to get active in their union.
Josie Stewart, a cleaner and education support worker, spoke to the strike rally. “After the strikes I’ve decided I want to be a union rep so I can stand up for people at work,” she told the crowd to roars of approval.
The strike is an inspiring example of the power of workers as coordinated action by low-paid women shut down Scotland’s largest local authority.
And the strikes also raise the question of women’s oppression in society.
Women are paid less because of historical sexism that allowed bosses to treat the work they tend to do as less important than the work men do.
The global #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have raised issues of how women are treated. Campaigning on issues from sexual harassment to equal pay will be most powerful if it is linked to collective action.
The Glasgow strikes are a great example of the action we need. Union leaders must be pushed to move from good words to effective action.
During the second day of action, GCC said it wanted to sit down for talks. Council bosses say they are determined to offer workers a settlement by December.
But with meaningful negotiations yet to take place, it’s highly unlikely a fair settlement can be reached in this timeframe.
The Glasgow strikers are an inspiration for the whole working class. Dismissed by council bosses, and ignored by successive administrations, they are fighting back hard.
Last week’s strike has to be the start of the struggle. The strength of the action, and the solidarity strikers won, show the potential to win.
“It’s our money,” said catering assistant Margaret. “They’ve been told they have to pay, so they’ve got to.”
Margaret said she felt nervous before striking for the first time, but if she takes action again “all the nerves will be gone”.
“We know everyone supports us now,” she said. “If this doesn’t work we’ll just have to strike again.”
Susan Aitken—featured on many strikers’ placards—has sat as council leader since May last year.
Then the Scottish National Party (SNP) won control of Glasgow City Council from Scottish Labour.
Labour had controlled the authority for 37 years—and denied equal pay to women for decades.
That’s why it’s particularly galling for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and others offering solidarity to the strikers.
Leonard was also a GMB union official at the time the discriminatory pay deal was agreed.
But 18 months after taking office, Aitken has yet to make good on her election promise to resolve the dispute.
It’s right that workers fight against council bosses, regardless of their political hue.
And Aitken’s inability to resolve the dispute isn’t the only thing that has workers raging at her.
Speaking to the Evening Times newspaper earlier this month Aitken said, “I’m not entirely sure the women know the basis on which they are striking.”
This is patronising—and deeply untrue.
Striker Sylvia said, “This is not a fight about party policy, not a fight about terms and conditions, this about pay justice.”
She pointed out that the council has spent “£2 million in court costs and QCs and what for? To stop pay justice, and stop low paid women getting what they deserve.”
The fight sparked a strive wave where other workers refused to cross their picket lines—and turned their fire on the bosses.
It was a fantastic response to Tory anti-union laws that deem solidarity strikes illegal. And it shows the laws can be defied.
School janitors and staff at land and environmental services, who maintain parks, roads and outdoor spaces, walked out during the second day of action.
One janitor told Socialist Worker that strikers “just had to stick at it and tough it out”.
“My wife is a home carer—she’s losing pay, I’m losing pay,” he said. “But it can be done.”
Bin workers struck on both days of the equal pay strike. They turned up to work at 6am but refused to take the wagons out after women set up a picket line.
When bosses at one depot told bin workers they wouldn’t be paid for the day, workers handed strikers their packed lunches as they walked out in response.
The solidarity action by around 600 workers meant no bins were collected from the city’s nine depots during the 48-hour action.
One teacher who refused to cross the picket line at Eastbank Academy has been told not to return to the school. She was reportedly called by the school’s deputy head who said she “would not get another job in Glasgow”.
But workers are right to respect strikers’ picket lines—and unions must defend any who face victimisation as a result.
Services run by Glasgow Life—the council’s arms length management organisation—were also affected. The Mitchell Library and Kelvingrove art gallery and museum were closed during the walkout.
The scenes in Glasgow are a powerful reminder of workers’ strength against the bosses.
In the past, council bosses told low-paid women workers that their pay could only be increased if male council workers took a cut.
Yet the council isn’t divided between men and women workers, as the united action has shown.
Class struggle toppled apartheid