Tuesday, 3 July 2012
Sisters With Solicitors
I think this is a good time to publish a previous post from the blog site - one from April 2010 which features an article written by Zoe Williams a regular contributor in the Guardian newspaper.
To be sure the trade unions have a terrible track record on equal pay and - in certain parts of the country - they have lost all credibility whatsoever.
Sisters With Solicitors (29 April 2010)
Here's an article on equal pay by Zoe Williams from the Guardian newspaper - the sections in bold have been highlighted by me - but you can read the full story on-line at:
"On equal pay, sisters with solicitors must do it for themselves"
"The Birmingham case shows just how much Labour and the unions have let women down.
The news about Birmingham city council is in its way as big a deal, as cataclysmically bankrupting, as Greece. Unlike Greece, it has a massive, Erin Brockovich feelgood factor. I feel sure we'd be talking about it much more if it weren't for bigot-gate.
The tribunal's finding is this: women employees have been systematically underpaid and discriminated against by this council, for as long as the Equal Pay Act has been in force. Female staff on the same pay grade as men (cleaners versus bin men, for instance) could expect to earn much less, to start with, and go on to be paid much less in bonuses. The starkest example given was one case of a refuse collector taking home £51,000 in one year, while women on his level received less than £12,000.
Paul Doran, of the firm Stefan Cross that successfully brought this case, told me: "The bonuses were a sham, there was no monitoring, they were paid simply for men turning up to work, doing their jobs properly." The council plans to appeal (of course it does), and there are appeals due to be heard in September from Sunderland and Bury councils, fighting similar cases. But if it proceeds according to the judgment as it stands, this will lead to payouts worth £200m. It is, in short, a wonderful day for equal pay, better than any manifesto promise: legislation has shown its teeth, and there isn't a council in the country that can afford to ignore it.
Nevertheless, the abiding sense I'm left with is not triumph but outrage, not least at the GMB union, which, solicitors say, was just as culpable as the council in maintaining this exploitative status quo. The GMB had the unbelievable brass neck to put out a press release yesterday morning claiming this as their victory. Technically, in terms of representing the litigants, this may be – but historically it's quite a different case.
Female staff, attempting to right the iniquities in the pay scale, weren't just poorly represented by their union, they were systematically bullied (this is all documented in the Allen v GMB appeal of 2008, which found against the GMB and which the GMB, brazenly, never mentions).
Doran recalls: "The Equal Pay Act was enforced from 1975. In spite of that, councils started paying bonuses in the 70s and 80s, which was driven by the unions. The bonuses are paid to male-dominated groups. The councils quickly realised that the bonuses would have to be scrapped, so the unions, rather than fight for equal pay for the women, spent a lot of their time preserving the bonuses for the men."
This included actively encouraging women to settle for pitiful sums (£2,000 to £7,000 in cases where the claims were for as much as £50,000) and publicly briefing against the women on the basis that their claims would lead to job losses or would bankrupt the council. Socialism and feminism aren't synonymous, and we all know that: but the misogyny of the left is almost more poisonous, more depressing, than the rabid materialism of girl power. I remember people saying this about Thatcher: that one of the reasons why she was rarely hauled up on those of her policies that were actively bad for women was that she had, at least, smashed the unions: and that was worth quite a lot of free milk.
I suppose if there's an ancillary point here, it's that unions can fight and win some quite improbable battles, at least for a time; so it's worth joining, as long as they are on your side – not just taking your money and stamping on your face.
By coincidence, yesterday's ruling was made on the same day that Harriet Harman and Theresa May faced off at the Fawcett debate, What About Women? Harman is a wonderful speaker; she took May apart, and I say that without agenda (I was rather taken with Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green). But "Sisters!" she cried, talking about an extant 20% pay gap between the sexes. "Do we really think we're 20% stupider than men, less able, more lazy?" Everybody clapped. She talked about mandatory pay audits, and how they would ensure that bad employers have nowhere to hide. It was all incredibly inspirational, except for the fact that this government has already been in power for three terms, and we are standing here, gasping in amazement that anyone's managed to enforce some equality legislation that was passed in 1970.
It makes you think: first, that the Labour party, for all its big talk, is not necessarily the best for women. Of Harriet Harman's personal commitment to equal rights, I am in no doubt. But the forces working against her, in her own party or certainly their cohorts, the unions, are just as powerful and destructive to equality as anyone painting poor old Theresa May into the corner where she has to argue the married man's tax allowance until she's pink with embarrassment.
Second, maybe we don't need more legislation, at the moment, in this area. Maybe we do not need the Equality Act, until there is proper, rigorous implementation of the Equal Pay Act. And lastly, a moment to congratulate the solicitors: they don't campaign or (I doubt) call anybody "Sister". But they get it done."