Sunday, 28 October 2012

Equal Pay Victory: Behind the Headlines

Equal pay hit the headlines big style last week culminating in Friday’s announcement that UNISON had won a settlement for 3,000 workers in Edinburgh.

As UNISON Scotland mounts an autumn recruitment campaign, what better advert is there for being a member of a union? But amidst the celebrations, it is worth taking a look at the years of work behind the headlines that brought a deal for these mainly low-paid women.

Single Status, for all its faults, was meant to address pay inequality. Although agreed in 1999 in Scotland, councils like Edinburgh dragged their heels for years. Edinburgh eventually imposed a disputed structure 11 years later.

Frustrated with the lack of progress by 2003, UNISON began the process that saw an initial 1,700 equal pay claims lodged. The union had been trying to negotiate for back pay and compensation for all staff affected by unequal pay so that there would be no need for them to go through lengthy legal proceedings. The council seemed oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ equal pay would need to be addressed but ‘when’.

On the back of that year’s nursery nurse strikes, the branch was well used to the council’s new macho style of industrial relations. Dragging out negotiations with what one activist called ‘an antagonistic, simplistic and patronising approach’ from HR leadership was the new way of doing things and it seemed to have seduced the Labour council at the time.

“The council seemed to have gone into denial as far as equal pay was concerned”, I wrote at the time. “It certainly seemed to be getting pretty odd legal advice that was consistently out of date. The briefings and training UNISON was providing were far superior to the advice councillors seemed to be getting”.

In that climate, a negotiated settlement was impossible. UNISON warned about the mounting cost of this approach. Councillors must be looking back now, asking themselves how they managed to land the council with inevitable multi-million pound settlements while damaging their reputation in delaying workers’ legal right to equal pay.

At last reality dawned and the council made the first of its ‘compensation offers’ from 2006 to around 3,000 women on manual grades, mainly related to the comparator of bonus payments in male-dominated jobs. A major logistical exercise of meetings with members, letters to home addresses, leaflets and newsletters was set up by the branch to ensure members were aware of their rights. Because of failed progress on single status, the council had to make further offers in 2008. The whole exercise was repeated. For the council, the penny still didn’t seem to be dropping.

The branch office was inundated with calls – it has continued to be for the last five years as staff and officers had to deal with angry and frustrated members. Special staffing arrangements had to be made and branch officers took on lead roles. One of these was the late John Ross who became a champion for low paid women on the old APT&C scales and different workplaces who had so far been denied the right to make claims. This group included social care workers who had been on manual scales until the branch had won APT&C status for them.

That is the crux of the settlement announced on 26 October. Years of legal wrangling had seen employers argue that, irrespective of the obvious inequalities, these APT&C staff could not make claims. In November 2011 the court held that they could. In January 2012 the council signalled it would not appeal this.

Peter Hunter, UNISON Regional Organiser explained at the time: "The council's decision to abandon the Supreme Court appeal is another equal pay triumph for low paid women in UNISON. UNISON has been championing this specific issue in the Supreme Court for some time and we are delighted our huge investment has paid off. The council's claim that women and men can be treated differently if they work in different council buildings was a fairly desperate defence. The time-wasting and delay must stop now - our members deserve justice. Lord knows they've waited long enough."

The council’s own publicity, as it tried to steal a march by announcing a settlement a with no-win-no-fee lawyers, contributed to even more claims coming forward from UNISON members, overwhelming the branch office and boosting the numbers to up to 3,000. Again the branch wrote out to every member, this time setting a deadline for claims.

Talks dragged on. Then in May 2012, the electorate dumped the Lib Dem/ SNP coalition. Labour became the largest party. Hatchets were buried and they took control in a ground-breaking coalition with the SNP.

The successful talks that followed were described by Labour leader Andrew Burns as an example of ‘partnership’. A glance at the branch’s website shows that the branch offered a detailed ‘Partnership to Save Edinburgh’s Services’ in 2000 in return for a no compulsory redundancy pledge. That was rejected. Time to resurrect it perhaps?

Whatever the longer-term industrial relations implications may be, at this point the issue is that long discriminated against workers will at last get some overdue compensation.

“That didn’t come by itself”, explained new branch secretary Andrew Barnett. “It came from legal action of course. But it also came from years of work, training, commitment and organising by lay officers, stewards and branch support staff. We don’t trumpet the work we do often enough. As we go into the recruitment drive we should not be shy in highlighting what we can achieve.”

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