An acid test for so-called radicals is where they stand when industrial disputes rage and strikes take place. Words are puny compared to action when the time comes to choose a side between the boss and the worker. It is simply an iron law of working class life that you never betray your fellow worker during a legitimate and official strike. You never cross a picket line and take the side of the boss. You never scab on your colleagues.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday in Glasgow almost 8,000 predominantly low paid women workers will stop work in pursuit of an Equal Pay claim that stretches back over 12 years and involves up to 12,000 women employed by Glasgow City Council. To say the action is overdue is an understatement. To say it is just is to state the bleeding obvious.
All Glasgow City Council Education and care workers, who used to work for an arms-length company called Cordia before the new SNP minority administration took the welcome decision to bring them all back in-house, will strike. So will school support for learning staff, child development officers, school administration workers, home carers, caterers and all other workers in these services. These workers are overwhelmingly women and they perform essential duties every day of the year. They care for the elderly, the vulnerable and children with special needs. The City Council has condemned the action because those most in need of care and support will suffer. But no strike action is without consequences. The women feel they have no other choice.
The women workers in these jobs have been pursuing an Equal Pay claim since 2005 when it was revealed that these ‘essential’ care jobs were undervalued and underpaid in comparison with male workers in other sectors of the council performing jobs of similar value. Thousands of women were being effectively denied proper pay and their right to equal pay was ignored. During the last 12 years Glasgow Council was a majority Labour administration. Labour councillors were in charge while thousands of low paid women workers were denied equal pay. It is a scandal of epic proportions. Labour is supposed to be the workers party. They are supposed to be for equality and women’s rights. They are supposed to be about justice and upholding the rights of minorities. On all fronts Labour failed these women terribly.
It is, however, even worse. Not only did a Labour council deny low paid women workers compensation for years of underpayment over the last 13 years they also went to court to fight against these equal pay claims and squandered £2.5 million pounds in legal bills and associated admin costs thus delaying the inevitable and building up the level of compensation eventually owed https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15568711 revealed-labour-led-glasgow-council-spent-millions-fighting-women-workers-equal-pay-claims/ . They not only denied justice to these women they made the situation even worse. Some estimates to settle the outstanding claims now range from £500 million to £1 billion, although the council disputes those figures https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-45507319 . No wonder that Labour administration was kicked out of office in May last year with the loss of 13 seats and almost 16,000 votes.
The SNP in the city swept up most of the former Labour votes and won an additional 12 seats to become a minority leadership of the council. In the last 16 months or so the new SNP led council have had a massive mess to clean up. Labour took the people and the city for granted and were deservedly dumped. Some SNP supporters make the legitimate criticism that the equal pay dispute was going on for 13 years and never once did the main trade unions organise strike action to further the claim. Yet within 16 months of the SNP taking over those same unions, GMB, UNISON and UNITE have manged to organise next week’s action. What the hell were they doing during the last 13 years is the legitimate question?
The SNP Council leader says the claim will be settled soon but according to the unions that was a promise made last August and progress has been far too slow.
I have sympathy with the current SNP administration and contempt for the previous Labour one. The equal pay claim should have been settled many years ago. No doubt about it. But when the women carers, cleaners, caterers and education support staff visit Tesco or Asda to buy their weekly shop the checkout assistants don’t accept promises to pay sometime in the future. They demand money to pay for the groceries there and then. Just as landlords and banks demand money to pay for rents and mortgages. So although I sympathise with the plight the new SNP council faces in trying to clean up the mess left by Labour in the city my support and that of all trade unionists should be with the women workers.
Yes any attempt by union leaders or officials to make political capital out of the dispute by attacking the SNP should be roundly condemned and those organising next weeks’ action should point the finger of blame firmly at the previous Labour administration but these women have waited long enough for justice. They have had empty promises for years and their patience has been exhausted. None of them want to strike. Many are scared and can ill afford to lose two days’ pay. They also feel guilty about the loss of service to the vulnerable service users. But they have to make a stand eventually. The fact 98% of the GMB women members who voted in the strike ballot voted yes to strike is a vivid illustration of the mood of anger that exists.
Throughout history women workers have had to show incredible courage and strength to stand up to intimidating bosses who have denied them equal treatment and equal pay. From the Match Girls of Bryant & May in London, some as young as 13, who struck in 1888 to prevent a damning health report being covered up and won improved conditions, to the women transport workers in London who had to strike in 1918 to get the same war bonus that had been paid to the men but not them. Through to the 187 Dagenham Ford women workers who struck in 1968 against unfair grading and unequal pay. Despite ridicule and management intimidation these trail-blazing women eventually forced Ford Motor Company to improve their pay and treat them equally and their action led directly to the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. It is in that spirit and on those shoulders that the Glasgow City Council women stand next week.
At the age of 8 I was acquainted with the basics of trade union action and solidarity when my mother sat me on her knee to explain why there were no lights and we had to light candles in the house. I was crying because I couldn’t play with my small plastic soldiers on the floor. She explained how electricity was generated from coal which had to be extracted from deep mines underground and the job was dangerous and hard but underpaid and the men concerned were on strike so that’s why the lights were out. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t really placated. I was still upset that I couldn’t play with my toy soldiers. But that incident has stayed in my mind ever since.
That was 1972 during the miners’ strike which caused electricity blackouts because of coal shortages. My mum had left school without any qualifications and worked as a cleaner and in pubs. She eventually joined a union and started to organise other women bar staff. The big brewers at the time were Tennants Caledonian. They refused to recognise the union and wouldn’t negotiate improved rights and wages. My mum helped organise a strike of bar staff across Scotland to force the company to recognise them.
The company scoffed at their efforts and boasted that the bar staff couldn’t close all pubs and customers would choose to drink in ones unaffected by the strike. However my mum and her new union recruits didn’t picket the pubs they picketed the brewery and the lorry drivers who drove the beer from the brewery to the pubs were also union members and they refused to cross the picket lines. They refused to scab. Within 3 days of action the Brewers gave in and agreed to recognise the union and pay higher wages, overtime allowances and taxi costs for staff left without access to public transport after the pubs had closed. Being in a trade union improved my mum’s wages and working conditions. My mum went on to become a full time union organiser for the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU now UNITE). So I and my two older sisters were raised on the basic premise that a women’s place is in her union.
It was a premise that served them well. They have been trade union members throughout their lives and shop-stewards. One of my sisters will be on strike next week even though she is not part of the equal pay claim. She is in UNISON and will strike in solidarity with her sisters in the union.
Trade unions are the most basic and important organisations that allow workers to be protected from bullying and exploitative bosses. The rich and powerful hate trade unions because they threaten their power and privileges. From better rates of pay to equal pay, from employment protection to holiday pay and sick pay through to proper pensions and reductions in the working week. All major improvements in workplace conditions are due to the trade union movement. Every worker should join a union. You may never need your union but when you do you will be glad you joined. They are far from perfect but they are necessary.
The final word belongs to the American writer, journalist and social activist Jack London (1876-1916) who expertly summed up in his 1915 poem https://www.rmtlondoncalling.org.uk/content/ode-scab-jack-london-1876-1916 what a scab was and why you should never be one:
Ode To A Scab
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, he had some awful stuff left with which he made a scab.
A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumour of rotten principles.
When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out. No man has a right to scab as long as there is a pool of water deep enough to drown his body in, or a rope long enough to hang his carcass with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared to a scab. For betraying his master he had the character to hang himself – the scab hasn’t.
Esau sold his birth right for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his saviour for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strike breaker sells his birth right, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.