Mark Whitehead 24 January 2019

Glasgow strike settlement: a bumpy road ahead

News of a settlement to the long-running dispute over equal pay claims by women at Glasgow City Council will have come as a welcome relief to many.

The two-day strike last October caused massive disruption with council facilities shut down and warnings that elderly and vulnerable people were put at risk. But the walkout by around 8,000 women quickly led to the two sides resuming talks, which have now produced a result.

Some will have seen the strike as a victory for workers' solidarity, while others will see it as the unacceptable side of union muscle in action. But the fact is that, for better or worse, it was the strike that seems to have tilted things in favour reaching agreement on a deal both sides could live with.

It's hard not to conclude that, to paraphrase a famous tabloid headline, it's the unions wot won it.

There was a great deal of money at stake and it's easy to see why the council might have cavilled in the past. The pot now put aside to meet the claims is worth around £500m, and the plan is to raise the cash by selling off a potentially long list of municipal assets to the council's own property company and then leasing them back.

Both sides have expressed their 'delight' at reaching the deal. Susan Aitken, who became the council's leader two years ago after the SNP took control from Labour, declared 'my commitment to resolving this issue has never wavered and I have never needed to be convinced of the case for equality.'

On the staff side, Stefan Cross of Action4Equality Scotland, a campaigning organisation aligned with the three unions, said there had been real and constructive talks since the strike. 'Neither side has got everything it wanted and both sides have made serious concessions so that we can both be satisfied that this is a fair deal,' he said.

However, it may not be so easy in the longer term and the current agreement is actually more of a broad agreement on a way forward than a deal in the true sense. Its first task will be to settle the thousands of historical claims by the women going back ten years, many of which are on behalf of individuals rather than groups. The payouts are expected to begin within the next six months.

At the same time work will progress on the potentially even more complex task of devising a new scheme of pay and conditions for the workforce to eliminate the past inequalities. The official estimate is this could take around two years – and in the meantime the pay structure agreed in 2007 that is at the heart of the dispute will continue in place.

In its statement the council correctly describes the current settlement as an 'agreement in principle' which 'does not represent the end of the process.'

That process begins with the council as a whole rubber stamping the agreement next month and the women, represented by Unison, Unite, the GMB union and Action4Equality Scotland, giving it their approval. Then the process of raising the funding to pay the claims has to be competed, and there will be technical details to sort out about how it will be paid.

But already signs are appearing that the road ahead could be bumpy. Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has thrown doubt on the plan to mortgage key council properties, warning: 'The contracts setting up these property transfers will need to be open to the fullest transparent scrutiny to ensure Glaswegians are getting value for money. There can be no hiding behind spurious claims of ‘commercial confidentiality.''

The noises surrounding the deal have been optimistic so far. On the face of it there is plenty of goodwill on both sides and with some flexibility it seems possible negotiations over the next two years will finally resolve the matter for the long term.

But it is hard to imagine a more complicated set of challenges and there is a huge amount of work to be done. The council's financial and HR resources will be fully stretched and with the union side full of confidence following its brief but successful campaign of industrial action, it could be a difficult business.

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