An estimated 8,000 public sector women made history today in an unprecedented strike for equal pay in Scotland – and the message from strikers is, “If we can do it, anybody can”.
The Glasgow workers, mostly members of the GMB and UNISON trade unions, are set for 48 hours of stoppage after little progress was made surrounding the dispute between staff and the city council. It is the biggest walkout of its kind in the UK and has the potential to inspire similar action across Britain, according to demonstrators.
The council restructured its payment and benefits system over a decade ago, which led to those in traditionally female-dominated industries, like home care, earning up to £3-an-hour less than workers in the same band. This was ruled discrimination of women by the Court of Session in 2017, and earlier this year the SNP council announced that it was ready to negotiate.
However, talks have so far proved unfruitful and women say they simply want the “money [they] rightfully earned” – a sum up to £1bn in total, employment lawyer Stefan Cross estimated, if all 12,000 claimants are to be compensated.
Bernadette Hamill, who has been a home carer for 17 years, told The Big Issue at today’s strike: “It’s disgraceful that it’s come to this, but it’s what we’ve had to do.” She mentioned that the women striking have been affected by poor mental health as a result of their struggles in the campaign.
Strikers and supporters congregated at Glasgow Green before marching through the city centre to George Square, where speakers included STUC president Lynn Henderson, UNISON Glasgow chair Mary Dawson, Labour candidate Rhea Wolfson and several striking members. The women felt a wealth of support from the public and fellow workers – council refuse staff stood in solidarity with the women by saying no to crossing picket lines, and many agreed that union support had been invaluable. They acknowledged that their action could spark similar organisation across the country – and that they hoped it did.
We just want to be appreciated for the work that we do, to be paid the same as men in the same pay grades.
Many women said they hoped the strike inspired others to demand what they are due, wherever they are. Deborah Rafferty, a home carer, said she was striking for equal pay not just for herself but “for future generations. Future women, not just in Glasgow but all over Britain.”
“If we can do it, anybody can,” she told The Big Issue. “We just want to be appreciated for the work that we do, to be paid the same as men in the same pay grades. We just want to be recognised.”
The council, standing by the commitment made to reach a settlement with the women by the end of the year, called the strike unnecessary – directing attention to disruption caused by the strike across schools and homes which were left understaffed. Anne McDonald and Irene McGregor, both with over three decades’ experience each in home care, rubbished attempts to portray strikers as unsympathetic to the inconvenience the strike would cause.
We’re the people and we want to make Glasgow.
Anne said: “Some of the coverage hasn’t been very nice. They suggest we don’t care about the elderly – it’s them who don’t care. They’re putting that much work on us because they just don’t care. We’ve not got enough time with the clients. We do care, we care a lot about our elderly and vulnerable people. We don’t want to have to do this, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Irene added: “They talk about how people make Glasgow – which they do – well, we’re the people and we want to make Glasgow. We want to be spoken about in years to come because we’re the women who fought to get equal pay for future generations as well.”
Those striking have also refuted the suggestion that the strike is party political – the council, a minority SNP administration, was under Labour control when a controversial pay system was introduced twelve years ago, remaining so until May last year. Bernadette said such naysayers should “be ashamed of themselves”.
She told The Big Issue: “They should come out and do our jobs. We work 70 hours a week, we’re off a week, we’re out all day and all night. It’s not just home care. It’s social work, it’s district nursing. “They should do our jobs, and then they’d know.”
Image: Bernadette Hamill by Hannah Westwater