In two short years it will be the 50th anniversary of the orginal Equal Pay Act. Who knew? Actually just about every woman who has been fulminating in the intervening decades about the stubborn disparity in pay rates. That original act, subsequently updated in 2010, talked about equal pay for equal work or, crucially, work of equal value -"rated as equivalent" in the current jargon.. And it is that latter definition which lies behind the sad sight this week of women going on strike in search of some equity after years of battling Glasgow City Council.
It's not even remotely difficult to sympathise with their cause; to acknowledge the fact that many are juggling seveal jobs just to put food on the family table. But when we arrive at a situation such as this week's industrial action, then it's worth examing how it could ever have come to this. How the most vulnerable lost 48 hours of care, and schools and nurseries shut up shop. And, not at all incidentally, how these already under rewarded women were persuaded it was necessary to give up two days pay to go on the march for overdue justice.
It's important to note that this is not a battle begun with the current council administration. It dates back some 13 years, during the latter ten of which various court actions were raised to try and prevent the women from pursuing their case. Part of the reason for this was doubtless the knowledge that were these claims to be successful and the workers re-imbursed and compensated in full there would be budgetary carnage. A consideration which in no way renders the claims invalid but perhaps explains why so many of these equal pay struggles have been so protracted. However in January of this year, the new council administration said it would no longer pursue any further legal action.
But let us go further back to try to understand why these pay gaps were allowed to proliferate in the first place. And here we might ask some very pertinent questions of the very unions proudly marching in solidarity with the female strikers. For it was these selfsame unions which signed off on deals which not only disadvantaged pay grades in areas where women predominantly worked, but agreed shift patterns and overtime rates which essentially built in guaranteed bonuses for work done almost exclusively by men. Of course the personnel in those unions has changed over the years, but interestingly some men from the most actively involved unions are still very visible on the battlefront.
One is Richard Leonard, then a research officer with the GMB, now leader of Scottish Labour and another is Mark Irvine, then the chief negotiator with UNISON and now with Active4Equality. Mr Leonard has been posting and tweeting his support for the strikers, whilst Mr Irvine, along with his Action4Equality partner Stefan Cross, has been persuading disadvantaged women to sign up with his company to pursue their claims. The company has been fighting for pay parity in councils on both sides of the border. for some years.
Their website is nothing if not frank about why you should hire them. It says it will take a percentage of any money the women are awarded - "a contingency fee arrangement" - and notes that: "It is true that the unions will do the claims for free but that doesn't mean that you will end up with the same amount of money". And please to remember: "when we started the claims in August 2005 the unions immediately agreed a compensation scheme with the council where women received only about 25% of the value of the claim, whereas our clients who didn't take the original offers almost always ended up with considerably more money" Almost always. To access their services you have to agree the contingency fee in advance.
Another puzzle is why this strike has been called now, when none was during the many years of court battles. Not least since the current adminstration committed some months ago to fixing this long running sore by the end of this calendar year. A letter from the chief executive this week said: "The Council clearly confirms that it should be able to have a conversation on the detail from October 2018 onwards with a view to including this into the December 2018 offer” .A 30 strong staff is working on that offer.
This letter was the subject of one of Mr Cross's regular breathless blogs, during which he called her missive "incendiary" and accused the council of treating the claimants like "silly women" compared to how they tackled disputes with male employees. He also said negotiations had broken down because the people with whom he had been speaking lacked the authority to do a deal despite having been assured in writing they had. Mr Cross, I venture to suggest, is not a stranger to hyperbole. But he does know how to ramp up the ante and promote new grievances should there be any danger of peace breaking out at an inopportune juncture.
Some things are not at issue it seems to me. The women concerned have been treated shabbily for many long years. They have been let down by their employers, but also, historically by their unions. The motives of some of those shouting most loudly on their behalf are not without self interest. The people who have lost their care services this week do not deserve to be used as pawns or made victims of political battles.
And the council which somehow has to fix this is acutely aware that any settlement will probably land it in just as much hot water on another front if its sums don't add up.