Monday, March 05, 2007

Equal pay on the radio but not in local government?

Once again, the media – this time the Today Programme are debating a topic currently verboten for debate at UNISON Conference – Equal Pay. Whilst the crucial topic of Equal Pay in local government was headlining the BBC’s flagship news programme, the trade unions were notable only for our absence. There are good reasons for this reticence, but it is still unfortunate.

(The link to the Today Programme isn’t updated with today’s headlines yet as I post this, but I assume they’ll be there later).

Noted author and former left-winger, Chris Mullins MP is calling for legislation to prevent historic equal pay backpay claims from those covered by collective agreements. I am not sure how this could comply with the Equal Treatment Directive, nor would it have any impact in the majority of local authorities yet to come to an agreement on Single Status. Nor would this proposal do anything to address the question of litigation against trade unions themselves. In short the idea that we try to make collective agreements directly enforceable is probably not going to fix this problem.

The problem is not fundamentally with the law – it is about money. Achieving Equal Pay means redistributing resources in the direction of women workers whose pay has been unfair for years. These resources have to come from somewhere. One option is to leave other inequal structures of wealth and income distribution untouched and redistribute resources within the working class, between men and women. Another approach would be to tackle the massive class inequalities in income and wealth distribution so that women’s pay is levelled up as part of a wider equalisation of income.

With the latter approach sadly unlikely just now the best practicable approach must be for the Government to fund the filling of the gender pay gap in line with the policy of UNISON – our Conference agreed in 2005 to call on the National Executive Council to demand that the government ensures that initiatives to close the gender pay gap are fully funded, legally enforceable, and address past inequalities as a matter of urgency. These demands have not been met by the New Labour Government.

The sums of money required may be large – but we could save them by not replacing our Trident nuclear submarines… However if we want to put pressure on the Government in line with our agreed policy we are going to have to get beyond a vow of silence on Equal Pay issues!

In the mean time activists need to continue to refer to the official UNISON guidance on Equal Pay.

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