In 1997, councils across Britain came to an agreement with unions to undertake ‘Single Status’ job evaluations to end the discrepancies between manual and white collar jobs. Parallel to this, claims made about the historic pay discrepancies between traditionally male and traditionally female jobs were won at various Employment Tribunals. Historically, workers in female dominated jobs (such as those working around childcare) have been paid significantly less than those in jobs usually seen as ‘men’s work’, such as refuse collection.
Since the Equal Pay Act in 1970 these pay discrepancies had been open to legal challenge, but Single Status was supposed to be an across the board solution that would see every job within the councils evaluated and regarded equally based on the content of the job. In theory, this was of course a good thing.
However, perhaps predictably, things did not go so smoothly. Many councils ignored this, and those that did look at it spun the process out for so long that they are still ongoing 12 years later. A few councils attempted to lower men’s pay rather than raising women’s. The results of this differed across the country – in some places it was accepted by unions with little protest, in Birmingham there was unsuccessful strike action against the re-grading, while Greenwich UNISON ran a largely successful campaign demanding “Equal pay, not low pay”.
Fast-forward to 2009, and several councils are now attempting to force through far more punitive settlements, often using the recession as an excuse. In several places the level of pay cuts demanded have been so great that unions have been unable to ignore it. Perhaps the most militant response has been in Leeds, where at time of press refuse collectors have been on strike for over a month, after wage cuts of thousands of pounds per year were demanded from these already low paid workers.
The strike began on 7 September and has so far been largely solid, with a demonstration of over 200 marching on Civic Hall on the first Friday of the strike. On the 15th September, 16 bags of rubbish were dumped at the home address of council leader Richard Brett’s home. On the 16th, six workers were arrested for repeating this, allegedly under anti-terrorist legislation! The council has bussed in strike breakers from the Preston-based firm Noblet Municipal Services, but the majority of the city’s rubbish has remained uncollected.
Similar disputes are appearing elsewhere in the country, for example in Brighton, refuse workers have balloted for strike action after they were told to take pay cuts in some cases up to £8,000 per year. The Brighton bin workers have a long militant tradition – in 2001 launching wildcat strike action and an occupation against the private firm who held the tender, forcing the council to take refuse collection back in-house.
They have made it clear they are not prepared to take these attacks and announced in no uncertain terms that they will strike if the council attempts to implement them. Other workers facing pay cuts are also pushing for a ballot for strike action against these attacks. Desperate to avoid what happened in Leeds, the council has unsuccessfully attempted to divide the GMB refuse workers from those in UNISON by offering separate negotiations.
In Edinburgh, UNITE refuse workers are on overtime ban and work to rule against similar cuts, with the council threatening redundancy if they are not accepted. Scabs have been brought up from Liverpool to cover the work. Responding to this, several lorries have been blockaded by supporters. Other manual workers affected look set to join the action, as UNISON also rejected the deal.
These disputes show that bosses are prepared to use any possible opening to attack workers’ wages. Taking progressive demands such as equal pay and turning them against the working class is a New Labour hallmark. The unions, who pushed for the deals in the first place have frequently been impotent now they have been turned against them – such attacks can best be resisted where workers take control of the struggle themselves, and do not allow a union backroom deal to sell them out.
They also show that legislative solutions offer no answer for the working class - if we are not strong enough to defend our gains and back up law with industrial strength, then such attacks will continue to be made against us.
Direct action not legal action is the terrain on which to fight. While the principle of equal pay is something that must be supported and fought for, it needs to be won on our terms. We must fight to ensure women’s pay is raised rather than the state’s preferred option of attacking the pay of male workers