Equal pay agreement is just the beginning of the end for Glasgow

First published by The Herald on 19 January 2019

WHEN 2018 ended and Glasgow City Council had not settled its long-running equal-pay dispute as promised, it looked like the matter could be heading back to the employment tribunal to be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

Though both the council and the lawyers and trade unions representing the 14,000 affected women conceded that “valuable progress” had been made since the claimants staged a two-day strike in October, there were simply too many sticking points to overcome before a final settlement could be agreed.

Given that the case had already rumbled on for over a decade and that those affected will continue to receive unfair salaries even when the settlement goes through, that is hardly surprising.

But, with all sides keen to get the deal away, a breakthrough came two weeks ago when, as key negotiator Stefan Cross put it, everyone agreed to “draw a line under the past and get to the future when we get to the future”.

As a result, the sides were able to stop quibbling about what might happen when the council’s discredited pay scheme is replaced in the next two years and focus instead on ensuring the women are paid all the wages they should rightfully have received up to this point.

And so – finally – a £500 million package that will translate into average individual pay-outs of £35,000 was agreed this week, allowing the SNP-led council to finally bring an end to a problem that the former Labour-run administration had not only created but perpetuated.

No wonder council leader Susan Aitken, who said after the agreement was reached that her “commitment to resolving this issue has never wavered and I have never needed to be convinced of the case for equality”, felt able to gloat.

“After a decade of obstruction and inaction, in a relatively short space of time we have now reached agreement which delivers the pay justice these women long have fought for,” she said.

The agreement is hardly an end in itself, though. Ms Aitken still has to get sign off from a full council her party only has minority control of while the women – who are represented variously by Mr Cross’s firm Action 4 Equality Scotland and trade unions the GMB, Unison and Unite – will need to agree their individual settlement.

Given the time and effort that has gone into reaching the agreement, those matters are considered to be formalities, although there could be a small number of cases where further negotiation is required.

The bigger issue from the council’s point of view will be raising the necessary finance to ensure it can meet its stated aim of settling all 14,000 claims by December this year.

It will be no small task. Though Ms Aitken made settling the dispute a priority when she took over from Labour’s Frank McAveety in 2017, the previous administration had been so convinced that it could defeat the women through the courts that it made practically no financial provision for a potential settlement.

With less than £1m in its contingency fund when Labour left office, the SNP-led council set aside £35m in the 2017/18 financial year, all of which will now be put towards the settlement.

It will also look to extend its existing debt facilities – which at the end of 2017/18 stood £200m lower than a year previously at £1.5 billion – and mortgage some of the non-operational buildings held on its behalf by arms-length organisation City Property.

While raising half a billion pounds should not cause too much of a problem for a council as asset-rich as Glasgow, it is understood that all those financing deals are yet to be done meaning time, more than anything, is going to be of the essence.

Then, of course, there will be the future to deal with.

The starting point for this entire process was the pay structure put in place in 2007 following an agreement between the Labour administration and the then male-dominated trade unions.

Although it was supposed to eradicate an unfair system that had previously seen male workers earn bonuses their female counterparts were not entitled to, in truth all that pay scheme did was lock those bonuses in, perpetuating the inequality in the process.

While the £500m settlement will compensate the women for that, the discredited pay system – and so the pay inequality – will remain in place for at least the next two years while work gets under way on devising a new scheme

It is going to be a complicated process, not just because there is an obvious need to get it right this time, but because it is going to require the value of 3,000 different jobs to be assessed, compared and signed off by both the council and the unions.

When it is done, a further settlement will have to be negotiated to make amends for any pay inequalities during the period between this week’s £500m settlement being paid out and the new pay grades taking effect .

As Unison Scottish secretary Mike Kirby said when the settlement was agreed on Thursday: “While we have made great progress, we still have a lot of work to do.”

With the council facing bringing thousands of female workers’ pay packets into line with those of just a few hundred male staff one thing is for sure: it promises to continue to be a costly business.