Capitalist Equality Means Low Pay for All

Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wages system!”

Marx, Value, Price and Profit

Reformism, as the old saying goes, is a great idea in theory, it just doesn’t work in practice. It has now been thirty eight years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act and inequality is as widespread as ever in both the public and private sectors. Capitalism may be many things but you could never accuse it of being fair. Despite having the right to equal pay under the law, 75% of women workers in Government run councils are still underpaid and inequality in the private sector is as rife as ever. The legislators of the Equal Pay Act would no doubt be horrified to learn their law has been completely ineffectual. The trouble is, as soon as the bourgeoisie pass a law for equality they find a way to get round it. Local authorities have managed it for decades by using different pay scales and denying that men and women were doing comparable jobs. Since the late 1990s many council pay structures were designed to give bonuses to (mainly male) manual workers while mainly female workers with a comparable level of skill were paid a flat rate and the pay gap widened. For higher grades the introduction of individually negotiated contracts also ensured inequality would continue.

Legal Action and Inaction

As a result, Local Authorities have been sitting on a litigious time bomb for years.

By the end of the 1990s Local Government knew it would have to act, but the rise of “no win, no fee” schemes by hungry lawyers who could sniff money meant the number of cases brought against local authorities started soaring from the start of the century. At present, around 50 000 equal pay cases are being brought by underpaid council workers and the Commission for Equality and Human Rights estimates this figure could rise to 150 000 this year. As it stands, some women are having to wait up to ten years before their cases are settled. In the words of Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission, the current system is on the brink of “meltdown”.

Single Status

So, in 1997 all Local Authorities signed the National Single Status Agreement which aimed to ensure equal pay and conditions for men and women by 2007. Workers were promised that grading reviews would be used to deliver equal pay. The unions, specifically the GMB, TGWU and Unison, were fully behind the scheme, selling it to their members on the basis there would be a 37 hour maximum basic week and fair and equal pay. As the unions put it in their guidance issued prior to their vote for Single Status: “many will gain and nobody should lose”. In any case, they said, nobody could really lose because all pay was protected for three years. The earliest schemes brought news of pay cuts of up to 20%, and in some cases cuts of £11 000. Before long, it became clear that single status was the biggest con going. The losers in pay and grading reviews were most often the lowest paid workers who faced swingeing cuts. The winners often found that increases due to an equalisation in hourly rates were lost due to cuts in hours.

Elsewhere, reviews were used to boost the pay of senior management teams. In many councils, anger by workers and a refusal to accept the outcomes of the reviews led to the unions stepping in and implementing the scheme, claiming that cuts were necessary to fall into line with the Equal Pay Act. In the topsy turvy world of capitalist equality it turns out that the majority of workers facing pay cuts are women. In Coventry, out of 32 job “families”, consisting of 20 or more employees, taking a pay cut, 27 were traditional female jobs, three were mixed gender jobs and only two were traditional male jobs. The average pay loss ranged from £4 571 for refuse collectors and £2 678 for administrative assistants. Little wonder, then, that strikes have broken out, not only in Coventry which had a three day official strike, but elsewhere, with unofficial strikes by workers in Middlesbrough, Devon and Cornwall, and Moray. In Birmingham, thousands of workers walked out in February this year in the biggest strike there for twenty years. Over 10% of the council’s 41 000 employees will face a wage cut with some losing more than £25 000 a year. Bin men, hardly the highest paid workers in Britain, face a cut of £10,000.

Even some of the “winners” in the review are nervous; although it is estimated that four in ten workers will be better off, some are finding their wages are reduced anyway by having their hours cut. The biggest losers will be women, with twice as many women as men facing pay cuts, and 110 women standing to lose more than £10,000 each. Some female admin workers face losses of half their annual salary. So much for equality, then.

Unions and Equality

The unions are playing their usual game of helping implement something then taking over the fight back against it. The unions can hardly argue the outcomes of the reviews have been a surprise. The very earliest single status outcomes showed how unfair the whole thing was, yet unions persisted in supporting it. They worked closely with Local Authorities from the start and the scheme was designed with union co-operation all the way along. Its initial implementation only took place after union “consultation” with staff. The unions were part of the teams set up to carry out the reviews; union reps sat on the panels and they were closely involved when every individual union member was interviewed.

They reviewed and discussed the outcomes.

They “sore thumbed” (see box) the results to make sure they were consistent. And then they sold the results to their members under the guise that the whole operation had been carried out fairly and transparently. In Local Authorities up and down the country the unions have worked hard to get their members to agree to the outcomes, as unfair as they were. This is generally where there is a Labour-run local authority. In Birmingham the council is run by Tories. So when their members flatly refused to accept the cuts, the unions simply put on their militant heads and told workers not to worry, they’d head the fight back.

This is simply the unions fighting, not for their members, but for the narrow political agenda of their faction of the ruling class (the Labour Party). But why are they not supporting workers in their fight against all councils? A united movement of all local authority workers is the only way to ensure that no-one pays for this crackpot implementation of a law passed four decades ago. For people who face life changing cuts in their wages but who deep down trust the unions, well, the clues are there.

A Fair Day’s Pay?

At a time when public sector workers are facing a 2% wage increase (i.e., a wage cut in real terms), attacks on their pensions, rising inflation, rising mortgage payments and fuel bills, rising food costs and more expensive charges on debts, single status seems like a very sick joke. A second strike is planned in Birmingham and strikes are planned in Blackburn. If the unions keep control and confine it to individual authorities it will be hard for workers to win any justice. They have already delayed strikes voted for by workers against general pay cuts (see our last issue), and although workers throughout the country are facing the same problems with single status, unions are making sure they come out one council at a time for one-day strikes which not only limit their impact but increase the financial pressure on people who are already desperate. The unions won’t lead their members to victory over single status; at best they’ll negotiate a more palatable pay cut to keep things ticking over smoothly. The unions are not the fighting machines for justice they pretend. In most cases in local authorities, they’re just an extension of the Human Resources departments except they’ve got their own schemes to sell you credit cards. Workers fighting the horrific effects of single status will have to square up to their own unions, stop them isolating strikers and limiting the effects of industrial action. In the short term, they’ll have to find ways of organising outside union control, finding ways to link up with other workers facing the same attacks. In the long term, though, as long as the wages system lasts equality can’t exist. Fighting for equality in an economic and social system rooted in extreme inequality will only lead to the sort of tangled logic where “fair pay” means lower pay, and the fine and lofty promises of the unions leave a very bitter taste for those left behind.


Sore Thumbs

We asked our comrade who works in a local authority what “sore thumbing” was. She replied...

They look at all the cases and see which “comparable” jobs are coming up with big scores, then look to see why. The initial interview is done with the person, their line manager and someone from Human Resources. HR have software and depending on whether you answer yes or no to the question it flags up another question. So by knowing how to play the system theoretically you can bump up your score. The “sore thumbing” meetings are a way to make sure people haven’t done this and that everyone, say, who is a housing officer, for example, and is doing the same job come out with roughly the same score.

The whole thing fails because individuals are doing the same jobs, but not answering the questions in the same way, and those not being shrewd enough come out with lower scores than their colleagues doing exactly the same job.

The whole thing is evilly divisive. In our office of three people on the same job title and with the same wage, one took a massive cut, one stayed the same and the other took a minor cut. You can appeal but the whole thing takes forever and isn’t about the score but subtly shifts to whether the process was done fairly or not.

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