Issues behind the Glasgow equal pay dispute

Submitted by cathy n on 19 November, 2018 - 8:44 Author: Dale Street
glasgow strikers

Glasgow City Council Labour Group leader Frank McAveety has issued a letter which supposedly puts the record straight about the history of the City Council’s long-running equal pay dispute. In fact, it does no such thing.

The letter begins by listing “some spectacular things” achieved by Labour administrations during their 40 years in power in the City Chambers.

It does not do so for the sake of accuracy – many Labour Party members will have a less positive assessment of the record of the City Council Labour administrations – but for the purpose of creating a narrative:

We, Labour, did a pretty good job in the City Chambers. Just a pity about the occasional blip.

And that sums up the letter’s description of the adoption of a discriminatory pay and grading scheme by the Labour-controlled City Council in 2006:

“There was no malicious attempt to systematically undervalue the work predominantly done by women. Despite the good faith, despite the good intentions, despite the passionate belief in equality from those who were there at the time, we got it wrong.”

This sidesteps the question of why the Labour-controlled Council rejected the pay and grading schemes used by all other councils in the country, why it brought in consultants to draw up a scheme solely for Glasgow, and why the scheme was imposed without trade union agreement.

More importantly, it fails to even understand the basic issue involved in the adoption of a discriminatory pay and grading scheme in 2006.

It was not a question of malice. Discriminatory pay patterns are rarely, if ever, the product of malice. Rather, they are a matter of indirect discrimination. They are based on gender-biased stereotypical views about ‘women’s work’ and the value of ‘women’s work’.

It is still predominantly women who play the role of the family carer, looking after children, elderly parents, and sick family members. It is still predominantly women who deal with the daily household chores of cleaning and washing.

When women carry out a similar role in an employed capacity, it is undervalued because it is not seen as ‘real work’ and as the application of particular skills. Instead, it is seen as an extension of ‘what women do anyway’ for no pay in the home.

McAveety’s letter finds Labour councillors ‘not guilty’ of malice. But it fails to address the question of why Labour councillors failed to notice the stereotypical assumptions about ‘women’s work’ which underpinned the pay and grading scheme of 2006.

And such assumptions were hardly hidden away in the small print of the scheme.

The scheme adopted by the City Council included provision for extra payments (“non-core pay”) for particular job features. For example: “physical demand, working outdoors/unpleasant conditions, hazardous environment.”

Such features are traditionally associated with predominantly male work. This explains why the rate of pay for Council jobs rated as equal (and therefore paid the same “core pay”) ended up varying by as much as £60 a week once “non-core pay” had been added on.

In fact, the discrimination involved in the scheme’s concept of “non-core pay” was even more blatant.

“Physical demand, working outdoors/unpleasant conditions, and a hazardous environment” are also attributes of some predominantly female jobs. Care workers, for example, need to lift bodies, clean the faeces of incontinent adults, and go outdoors in all conditions.

(In the spell of bad weather earlier this year the only City Council employee who died was a care worker who was out doing home visits.)

McAveety’s exculpation of Labour councillors of the straw-person charge of malice fails to explain why Labour councillors accepted that “non-core payments” should not be paid to women employees who were just as entitled to them as their male counterparts.

Having dismissed the adoption of the scheme as a well-intentioned mistake by “passionate trade unionists and advocates for justice” – which certainly does not tally the opinion of many Labour Party members about the Purcell-led Labour administration – McAveety’s letter jumps forward to May of 2017 and January of 2018.

This gap in historical memory is nothing if not convenient: The record of successive Labour administrations during those years in actively opposing equal pay claims cannot be written off as a mistake by “passionate trade unionists and advocates for justice”.

The Labour-controlled City Council created arms-length companies (ALEOs). It then argued in court – all the way to the Court of Session – that low-paid women employees in ALEOs could not compare their rates of pay with those of better-paid male City Council employees.

(The basic legal argument was that there was no “single source” of pay: the source of pay for male Council employees was the Council; the source of pay for women ALEO employees was their ALEO.

The more sophisticated legal argument was: The ALEOs were Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs). An LLP was not a company as defined by the Companies Acts of 2006. As an ALEO was not a company it could not be an “associated employer”. Female ALEO employees therefore could not use male Council employees as comparators.)

It has been argued, although McAveety’s letter refrains from doing so, that successive Labour administrations agreed to such legal proceedings only because they – mistakenly – went along with the legal advice which they were given by City Council officers.

But this argument is undermined by the decision of the January 2018 meeting of the (by now SNP-controlled) City Council Administration Committee.

The legal advice presented to that meeting was that the Council should continue with legal proceedings. That advice was ignored and the meeting agreed to abandon legal proceedings.

If legal advice could be ignored in early 2018, why could it not also have been ignored – by Labour administrations – at any point during the preceding eleven years?

And some of those legal proceedings, it should be noted, were not concered with whether or not the pay and grading scheme itself was discriminatory. They were an attempt to prevent the women ALEO employees from even pursuing equal pay claims.

The omission of a more than a decade of history from McAveety’s letter also allows its author to sweep under the carpet the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report of 2010.

The EHRC report was a statutory report. It concluded that the pay and grading scheme was discriminatory. But the Labour-controlled City Council did not act on the report. Nor did it even publish its contents. (That happened only in 2018, after Labour had been voted out of office.)

The failure to act on the report cannot be dismissed as a well-intentioned mistake. Given that the SNP published the report (or at least large parts of it), there is no reason why Labour could not have done the same.

Having jumped from 2006 to 2017/18, McAveety’s letter quickly moves on to the equal pay strike of 23rd/24th October, probably the biggest equal pay strike in British history: “We stand in solidarity with those who went out on strike.”

It is not clear whether this is intended as a statement of support for those who went out on strike, or a statement of support for the strike itself. Either way, it ranks as hypocrisy.

Successive Labour administrations in the City Chambers spent eleven years not standing in solidarity with low-paid and discriminated-against Council (or ALEO) women employees. In fact, it went out of its way to try to keep them low-paid and discriminated against.

When the two-day strike was taking place, Labour councillors, with only the odd exception, went out of their way not to stand in solidarity with the strikers. They did not turn up to picket lines, go on the demonstration, or even tweet in support of the strike. This applies to McAveety himself.

And the statement which the Labour Group issued on the occasion of the strike likewise made no mention of standing in solidarity with the strikers:

“Today thousands of staff in Glasgow have gone on strike. The choice to take industrial action is never an easy one. Those members of staff deliver vital services and there are tens of thousands of people, if not more, who rely on them every single day.”

The chance to stand in solidarity with the strikers was on 23rd/24th October, not three weeks later, and via a letter.

Apart from stressing the Labour Group’s commitment to a negotiated settlement of the equal pay claims – something which it was never committed to when in power – McAveety’s letter concludes with a failed attempt to brandish his pro-trade-union credentials:

“There were threats of legal action made towards those who made the positive choice not to cross a picket line (during the equal pay strike). Labour presented a motion to the next Council meeting, calling on the Council to guarantee that no individual would face legal action for withdrawing their labour.”

But McAveety has not always been such an intrepid opponent of the Tories’ anti-union laws.

In 1998, during McAveety’s first spell as Council Leader, the Council obtained an interim interdict from the Court of Session against Unison when 1,500 of its members walked out on strike in the absence of a ballot. The media subsequently reported:

“Frank McAveety, the council leader, and the man whom (strike leader) Roddy Slorach blamed for the dispute, said that any member of staff who continued to breach the Court of Session interdict would be the subject of a disciplinary action. He said that anyone found guilty of flouting the interdict could be dismissed.”

And in 2014, when McAveety was again a City Councillor after a spell as an MSP, the Labour-controlled Council again applied to the Court of Session for an interim interdict against Unison, claiming that a protest outside the City Chambers was really an attempt to organise secondary action.

So: Labour in power means use of the Tories’ anti-union laws (by “passionate trade unionists”) against Council workers; Labour out of power means criticism of the SNP for allowing Council officials to threaten use the same laws.

This is the kind of double standards which cost Labour control of the Council in 2017 and which continues to undermine prospects of a Labour revival in Glasgow. It is also an additional reason why McAveety’s letter is devoid of credibility.

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