Equal pay in Glasgow: under attack, women fight back!

Thousands of low-paid women council workers and their supporters brought Glasgow to a halt in a historic walk-out over unequal pay

On 23 and 24 October, thousands of low-paid women council workers and their supporters brought Glasgow to a halt in a historic walk-out over unequal pay. They were cheerily welcomed by enthusiastic crowds.  Representing what one striker described as those who do 'the invisible jobs', thousands of school cleaners, home support workers, classroom and nursery assistants struck solidly for two days. This was a real blow for equality.

The dispute dates back to 2006, when Glasgow City Council was run by the Labour Party. With the active collusion of the GMB and Unison unions, it introduced a pay review that was totally discriminatory. The union acted to ensure that the bonuses of male workers were protected at the expense of women in similar jobs; women were pressurised by the Labour council and the union to sign on the dotted line, many unaware that they would be up to £4,000 a year worse off than their male counterparts. The Labour council fought the ensuing claims of more than 12,000 women all the way to the highest court in Scotland. The trade unions have acted as an adjunct of the Labour Party and resisted taking any action towards a just settlement. It is telling that only about a third of the women are represented by the union in fighting their equal pay claim.

In May 2017, Labour lost its 37-year rule over Glasgow City council to the Scottish National Party. Its inglorious tenure over decades had done nothing to alleviate the poverty of wards recognised as some of the most deprived in Western Europe. The following autumn, the Court of Sessions ruled in favour of the claimants. This put huge pressure on the incoming, minority SNP administration to at least be seen to be taking steps to resolving a dispute that could cost the council millions of pounds in settlement.

However, in reality, for almost a year nothing has happened. Fed up with constant SNP stonewalling, on 23 and 24 October, the women stood up and took to picket lines and the streets to demand what is due them.

Popular support for the action amongst other workers saw cleaning staff and traffic wardens turn back at the women's picket lines. Free transport  to the demonstration was unofficially provided by bus workers. The strikers noisily marched from Glasgow Green to George Square to an all-women platform which included highly-paid officials from the General Municipal and Boilersmakers union and Unison. Having undermined the women’s struggle time after time, they are opportunistically keen now to be seen at its head. But many speakers were also low-paid frontline staff, and as the large crowd assembled, they directed their remarks across the square to the City Chambers now run by the SNP. 

Strikers outlined their determination to fight to win pay justice. One of the workers expressed her disappointment in the SNP after having voted for SNP council leader Susan Aitken in May 2017. One woman worker spoke of the dispute being not about the boardroom, but about those at the bottom. But there were also moves to describe the campaign as ‘non-party political'. Of course! Amongst the union officials were prospective Labour Party candidates with a canny eye on any future General Election. As such, they need to cover up the shameful role played by the Labour council in the past and ensure they are now seen to patronise any progressive and radical dispute such as this to get on the comfortable green benches at Westminister – of course asking the SNP already there to shift up. They will be much better placed to sell out the working class from there.

The SNP council has condemned the strike as 'dangerous' and hypocritically expressed concerns for service users' welfare – concerns which are noticeably absent when it comes to imposing cuts on essential services. Membership of Unison and the GMB soared in the run-up to the dispute, with new members signing up in the midnight hour of the industrial action. This reflects the workers' determination to organise and win despite union reluctance. The unions have for many years covered up for Labour's unprincipled and sexist refusal to meet pay claims, but are now feeling the pressure from the low-paid women - one of whom described herself feeling 'totally oppressed' – and it is that justified anger that is so far setting the pace.

The record of the SNP in council is just as abject as Labour's: when the SNP ran Angus District Council in 2016 they dismissed the entire staff of the in-house Tenant Support Service and Home Support and then sought to recruit them to a privately-run service on predictably worse wages and conditions. Locked in a fatal embrace of neo-liberalism, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has stated ominously that there are 'other ways' to deliver services.

In Dundee, where in 2016 female Social Care Workers chanted: 'SNP! We voted you in. We can vote you out!', the SNP council has imposed a split-shift system. This is leaving many of the workers seriously exhausted and increasing numbers of them are rejecting it. They will have taken heart from the workers organising and fighting in Glasgow and their recognition that the SNP is no more progressive or concerned with their interests than the Labour Party, has to be made explicit in all these struggles. One woman teacher has been sacked for refusing to cross the picket line. She must be defended vigorously.

The Labour Party did not have a single banner on the October march – despite Corbyn’s protestations of being ‘for the many, not the few’. This demonstrates Labour’s continuity with its record as a party of cuts and austerity in local government. Its own connivance on unequal pay when in power makes it unable to mount any credible attack on the SNP Glasgow City council for stalling over the women’s pay claims. The Labour Party's opportunism will have to find another form. The SNP was similarly absent from the march – despite its claims to be standing up for the people of Scotland.

This equal pay dispute is gathering pace; the low-paid workers behind it show every sign of being willing to push their demands beyond what is acceptable to the unions, the SNP and the Labour Party. The early signs of workers’ solidarity and the overwhelming turnouts on demonstrations and picket lines show that the possibility of a decent fight exists.  These vital workers must turn to those within and beyond the union formations in their communities to strengthen and galvanise their struggle. This movement must also fight to defend anyone victimised and targeted for solidarity with their strike. Demonstrations by some of the equal pay campaigners have been taking place outside Eastbank Academy after supply teacher Victoria Wainright was sacked for refusing to cross a picket line during the Glasgow strike and told she would never work in Glasgow again. The more solidarity is built within such communities – the  poor, those facing temporary and casualised work, and the hell of Universal Credit and welfare reform, and the ongoing nightmare of austerity the less the Labour Party, the unions and the SNP will be able to control the momentum of the women’s struggle.. A new, fighting working class movement must be built.

Victory to the fight for equal pay! Victory to the women!

Michael MacGregor


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