Early on Tuesday morning, while most of us were still fast asleep, thousands of women made their way, through the cold and dark, towards picket lines outside schools, museums, libraries and a range of other council-run sites across Glasgow. This was the start of two days of strike action, where around 8,000, mostly female, council workers are walking out in a historical dispute over equal pay.
The story of these cleaners, caterers, carers and support workers harks back to 2006, when a new pay scheme, which was designed to eradicate gendered differences in pay, actually ended up entrenching them, by including a complicated combination of criteria for measuring value. The inclusion of things like shift patterns and working hours favoured male-dominated jobs, such as street and refuse work, while it penalised female-dominated ones, such as care and cleaning. It’s estimated that some women earned up to £3 an hour and up to £4,000 a year less than their male counterparts.
This scheme was introduced by a Labour-run council, who spent the next decade litigating against claimants in courts and tribunals. The SNP took control of the council in May 2017, on a promise of ending litigation and settling all claims but, despite their insistence that the process has not stalled, GMB and Unison members voted for strike action in landslide numbers, after stating that negotiations had failed.
“We were meant to have won this fight years ago,” support worker Theresa tells me, outside the council’s headquarters, Glasgow city chambers, at a 10,000-strong rally. “The law says we should get paid the same, and we’ve won the case in court again and again. But we still don’t have our money – it’s time for them to pay up.”
Lawyers for the women estimate that these claims may collectively be worth between £500m and £1bn, when historical back-pay is accounted for. And, at yesterday’s march and picket lines, the incredible length of this dispute – 10 years of fighting – was heavy on the minds of many.
“I’ve worked for the council for 14 years,” says Deborah, 33, a caterer in a primary school. “I’ve got arthritis in my back from this job, and there’s women that we’ve worked with that have passed away that were entitled to equal pay, and they’ve missed it because it’s gone on that long.”
In an illustration of just how vital their work is, yesterday’s industrial action shut down council-run services and facilities across the city, with a number of primary schools, museums and other public buildings forced to close. In an act of solidarity, the city’s male refuse workers also refused to cross picket lines and instead sacrificed wages by walking out of their jobs in the morning, in support.
“People are supporting us – you could see it by how many came out and cheered and clapped at our march,” says home carer Linda, who is in her fifties and has worked for 30 years. “The papers have tried to say that we’re selfish to disrupt the city and to leave vulnerable people without care. But our lives have been disrupted for 12 years, and our families are vulnerable, too, all because of this equal-pay fight.”
This support was clear at yesterday’s march and rally, with a number of service-users and their families even joining in, in solidarity with the women who support and care for them every day. Christine, who has had her support services withdrawn for the duration of the strike, tells me: “The jobs they do are hard and dirty and emotional, but despite that they stay so kind and patient. I can’t thank them enough, really.”
Many of the women striking are nearing retirement and have been working – and fighting – for many years. But they were joined on the march and rally by younger colleagues who are also affected, and by family and supporters, including children and babies in pushchairs bearing placards. For many women, picketing and marching, this action has come to be about much more than just the technical business of settlement negotiations.
Placards at the march bore slogans about the hard and invisible work of carers, and pictures of council leader Susan Aitken with the slogan “Desperately Seeking Susan”, as well as “Decades of Delay” emblazoned over past council officials. Speakers from a number of roles at the city-centre rally repeatedly referenced wider societal battles for gender equality and workers’ rights.
Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, has responded to the women’s strike, tweeting: “While I wish the strike wasn’t happening, I have nothing but admiration for the women involved. However, I feel contempt for a Labour Party expressing solidarity now when, in power, they took these women to court to deny equal pay. @theSNP and @SusaninLangside are working to fix.” The council, meanwhile, has said it supports equal pay, but that the strikes won’t help anything.
“It’s about our own equal pay, but it’s also about wearing ourselves down for our whole lives in difficult conditions for nothing in return,” says Laura, a 44-year-old cleaner at a primary school. “We’re in schools at the crack of dawn, carers are rushing in and out of people’s houses. Nobody ever really sees us.”
“But,” she says, gesturing to the 10,000-strong, mostly female crowd, whistling, chanting and dancing to We Are Family in the city’s famous George Square, “they definitely will today.”