When hundreds of women gathered outside Glasgow’s city chambers last week to demonstrate for equal pay, it was the next step in a decade-long dispute which has seen low-paid carers, cleaners and caterers take on a council which they claim has underpaid them by upwards of £500 million from them. The mood was one of anger and determination. But when the results of a ballot in which 98 percent of GMB union members voted for strike action were announced, there were tears and hugs too.
“The mood is difficult to describe but it’s basically empowerment,” GMB organiser Rhea Wolfson tells me. “Finally these women are taking back control and gaining some power. But there’s so much fury too: the results of this ballot are the women saying, ‘Nothing else has made you take us seriously; you obviously don’t value us. Maybe now you will.’”
The story of Glasgow’s equal pay women begins over ten years ago, when a 2006 Job Evaluation Scheme was introduced with the aim of addressing gender pay parity. In reality, this was what Wolfson describes as “a bastardisation of a national pay scheme” which included a convoluted set of criteria for job evaluation including factors such as shift patterns and the number of hours worked in a week. The result was a system in which majority-female cleaning, care and catering jobs were given the same status on paper as male-dominated roles like gardening and refuse collection – but where the latter could still ultimately be paid more because they were less likely to encounter split shifts or inconsistent hours. In keeping with an accusation from unions and lawyers that the scheme almost went out of its way to maintain unequal pay, it also included a three-year payment protection for men who lost out on bonuses, something which the Court of Session later ruled as discriminatory.
Since the scheme’s introduction, a bitter dispute has ensued between an estimated 12,000 women – represented by GMB, Unison and legal campaign group Action4Equality – and Glasgow City Council. For years this played out in courts and tribunals with a Labour-run council litigating against the women, until elections in May last year saw the SNP gain control of the council on a platform of stopping litigation and settling the equal pay claims.
“Since November we’ve been sitting in fortnightly meetings, but we haven’t actually been moving forward,” says Wolfson, who says the council promised to return to negotiations after the recent summer recess prepared and ready to engage with the unions. In reality, she says, “They came back and told us they were putting our timetable in the bin, and to go away and let them do the work so they could get back to us with an offer. That’s not a negotiation. That’s not engaging.”
Perhaps predictably in a Scotland still characterised by the divisions of the 2014 independence referendum, the decision to strike has been framed by some in partisan terms, with questions raised about why Labour-affiliated unions GMB and Unison – who never called for strike action under a Labour administration – are now escalating their fight against an ostensibly cooperative SNP-run council. Wolfson is on Labour’s NEC, but she says that the bottom line is that trust has completely broken down between the council and the workers: “There’s such little faith there that they need to come back with something hugely substantial. It’s hard to put your finger on what it would take to rebuild trust after they’ve let it go on for so long”.
For Shona Thomson, GMB Branch Secretary and a home care worker, the strike also symbolises something much greater. “The result was about women getting to the end of our tethers,” she tells me. “We’re patient women doing the jobs we do – but it’s not just about getting back the money that’s been stolen from us, it’s about feeling downtrodden from overwork and understaffing.”
“We do physically demanding jobs and our bones are getting old,” she says. “For years we didn’t say anything because we were scared for our jobs and we didn’t know our worth. Now we’re saying enough is enough.”
What happens next will depend on the council’s response in upcoming meetings, but Wolfson and Thomson have little faith that a resolution will be reached by the December date given by the council. Lawyer Stefan Cross, of Action4Equality (which represents around 6,000 of the workers), agrees. “The new administration made promises to resolve these issues over 18 months ago but nothing has been forthcoming," he says. "Every promise and deadline has been missed and no real negotiations have taken place to date. The council needs to create a fresh team, fresh resources and a fresh approach to achieve their own deadline of an agreement by the end of this year”.
At the time of writing, Unison – who represent another 3,000 workers – have also moved to a strike ballot, the results of which will be announced this week but which are expected to overwhelmingly favour striking. Glasgow City Council didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE, but told local media last week that they remain committed to the December deadline, adding: “Putting vulnerable people at risk by calling a strike which cannot change the timescale claimants agreed to cannot be justified.”
Amidst an already emotional and fiery dispute, Wolfson describes furious reactions to this accusation from the women, many of whom have devoted their lives to caring for vulnerable people for little financial return. “They’re painting it as union bosses versus the council,” she says. “But it’s not – it’s just short of 3,000 women demanding what they’re due.”
And, Wolfson points out, this is a historic moment in a wider battle for gender equality. “There’s so much talk right now about sexism and Me Too," she explains, "but we hear a lot about boardrooms and very little about frontline minimum wage workers. This is about women being chronically and systematically undervalued, and it’s huge.”
If strikes go ahead, Glasgow’s streets could see upwards of 5,000 low-paid and historically undervalued women on picket lines within a month. It’s a movement of almost unprecedented scale which, says Shona Thomson, will leave the council and the city more widely with no choice but to recognise the important contributions which have been largely invisible for so long.
“The great women of this city are making history.” says Thomson. “We’re the ones that make this city come alive in the morning: we get children fed, we get elderly vulnerable people up and out of their beds so that other people can go to work. We go into schools at 5AM to clean them so that children can get an education. If we pulled out – when we strike – everyone is finally going to see that”.