This was written by a Dundee Wobbly (in personal capacity) on 24th October – the second day of the Glasgow women’s equal pay strike.
There are 8,000 women on strike in Glasgow today demanding equal pay. They are spread across three trade unions, each of whose balloted members provided a support rate of between 90% and 98%. The dispute stretches back to 2006, when Glasgow City Council – led by a Labour administration – made a purported attempt to eliminate gender pay inequality by introducing a “Workforce Pay and Benefits Review”. However, the resulting changes actually discriminated against women workers, given that:
- a payment protection arrangement for men was not extended to women;
- those working over 37 hours qualified for extra payments, but most women (70% of the workforce) worked fewer than 35 hours; and
- workers in female-dominated roles, e.g. home care, received much less than those in broadly equivalent male-dominated jobs
Despite the decision to strike being taken by the workers themselves, the SNP – from leadership to lay supporters – have criticised Labour and the trade unions for their supposed hypocrisy, given that the former implemented the very discrimination in question, and that they both decided to do nothing about it until Labour was eventually ousted by an SNP administration in May 2017. While there certainly are criticisms to be levelled, I believe concentrating on the misactions of a political party and union leaderships between 2006 and 2017 in response to a strike led by union members today is patronising, with the implication being the women are mere pawns of Labour and the unions, who have tricked them into clandestinely attacking the SNP. Thus, while lip-service is paid to the strike, all agency is removed from the women themselves, who voted over 90% in favour of striking.
This is not an equally opportunistic piece by a Labour supporter. I do not believe meaningful improvements for the working class have ever been delivered by political parties, including Labour. Throughout history, all significant improvements for the working class, such as the abolition of slavery, the end of child labour, the eight hour day, mandatory weekends, the welfare state, and anti-discrimination legislation, were not the gift of benevolent statesmen. They were won through long, and often bloody, struggle by workers, women, black people, LGBT people, and many others, who took collective direct action in the face of state violence. Eventually, when faced with the real prospect of widespread unrest or revolution, the ruling class had to make such concessions to ensure continuance of the capitalist mode of production. Even then, such concessions remain in constant peril and are inevitably clawed back when not defended by extra-parliamentary means. This is exemplified by the dismantling of the welfare state and crushing of organised labour. Therefore, just as we cannot rely on political parties to grant us concessions, we cannot rely on them to defend those concessions already won.
Back to the Women’s Strike: There are justifiable criticisms of Labour and the trade unions during Labour’s previous tenure of Glasgow City Council. I have no desire to defend or explain away their actions; that political parties act primarily in their own interest and not those of the working class is sufficient explanation. Trade unions can be similarly flawed, particularly when dominated by men and engaging in utterly myopic thinking, like supporting the renewal of Trident or campaigning for a four day work week by 2100, when we have just a decade to completely restructure all aspects of production and consumption (read: abolish capitalism) so as not to bequeath an inhospitable planet to our children. Accordingly, Nicola Sturgeon says she “feels contempt for a Labour Party expressing solidarity now when, in power, they took these women to court to deny equal pay”. It is worth mentioning that the policy agenda of Corbyn’s Labour is a clear departure to the left from the neoliberal agenda of New Labour. So it’s no real surprise that it expresses support for the strike. And given both parties’ supposed support of trade unionism, surely a strike instigated and undertaken by workers of all and no party stripes is a cause for unity among two apparently pro-trade union parties? Indeed, division among the workforce sounds the death knell for any strike action. So why would the SNP sow such division?
Ultimately, the SNP fears that Labour may gain political ground from this strike. A successful trade union strike may lead to an increase of support for a party rightly or wrongly associated with organised labour. The SNP, like any governing party, is keen to cling to power. Thus, self-interest rules the day and the need to portray Labour negatively takes precedence over the potential disunity their stance may cause among the striking workforce. It also neatly detracts from their own failure to resolve the issue. This is a common political tactic: watch Question Time on any given week and you are absolutely guaranteed to hear one of the many Tory panellists bemoan the mess Labour left the country in, despite their having not been in power for eight years.
So yes, Labour made massive failures in Glasgow and everywhere else. Yes, the unions – led by, and likely acting in the interest of, men, (consciously or unconsciously) – failed in their duty to challenge pay discrimination against women workers. Certainly, there are many lessons to be learned for trade unionists. But the fact is that today women across Glasgow, regardless of their political affiliation, strike to end a long-standing injustice. They lead from the front and they deserve our unconditional support.
This whole tawdry affair just emphasises the utter impotence of party politics to effect real economic change and the need for trade unions to be organised from the bottom-up with women and other oppressed groups playing a decisive role therein. We win when we take collective direct action ourselves rather than wait for a dawdling and ultimately belligerent political class.
Victory to the Glasgow Women’s Strike.