When 8,500 women walked out on strike last month to demand progress on their claim for equal pay with men doing similar work, it was a reminder that collective action is alive and well.
Membership of trade unions may be massively down compared with their heyday in the 1970s but in Glasgow solidarity seemed to resurface as the city was hit by a strongly-supported and determined two-day action.
Closer examination reveals a more nuanced and challenging picture. The three unions involved – Unison, the biggest, GMB and Unite – were all involved in talks with the city council in the traditional way across the negotiating table.
But they were joined by a third party, Action 4 Equality Scotland, a limited company specialising in equal pay claims against local authorities, which is handling several thousand cases on behalf of individual Glasgow City Council employees.
It gets more complicated. All three unions are also dealing with thousands of individual claims on behalf of their members as well as acting for their memberships en bloc in the usual way.
Evidently this pot pourri on the staff side has not helped create a straightforward route to settlement. The council complained that in the weeks before the two-day strike the staff side was unclear about its demands, making it difficult to avert the potentially damaging industrial action which saw schools shut, refuse collection suspended, the city art gallery closed and vulnerable people hit by reductions in home care.
The staff side argue that they have presented a single, united front throughout and accuse the council of suspending negotiations for no good reason. They say the council was dragging its feet and failing to come up with any firm proposals to reach a settlement in a dispute which dates back to the early 21st century when the then Labour administration produced a package aimed at solving the equal pay disparities.
The council's current SNP leadership, which resolved to settle the dispute when it took control early this year, hinted at political motivation behind the strike, questioning why the previous Labour administration was spared any industrial action over the previous 12 years – a claim clearly rejected by the unions.
Meanwhile council leader Susan Aitken protested that she was totally in agreement with the case for equal pay while disagreeing with the 'unnecessary and dangerous' and walkout.
The strike appeared to achieve its objective in restarting talks, though the council argues they were progressing in any case and has promised to come up with a proposed package by the end of December.
But reaching a solution is not made any simpler by the mix of individual and collective claims being made on the staff side, and the array of organisations involved. Any proposals presented by the council side will have to be considered by all the organisations in their roles both on behalf of their membership as collectives and as agents in individual claims. There are several components and huge amounts of data covering hours, grades and job descriptions involved.
It is an extremely complex situation, and not exactly straightforward collective bargaining in the traditional sense. But a settlement will have to be reached one way or another and with goodwill on both sides – and a continuing mandate for further industrial action if the unions lose faith – come the New Year a lasting peace may be finally on the horizon.