Friday, December 07, 2007

Equal Pay - where do we go now?

I really will get my report of Wednesday’s NEC meeting written up shortly!

When I do I won’t cover in full detail the longest discussion at the meeting, as I have been able to do now for the last couple of years. That’s because the lengthy discussions on Equal Pay (including the implementation of Agenda for Change in the Health Service and Single Status in local government) concern an area in which the trade unions (not just UNISON) are embroiled in so much litigation. We are running thousands of legal cases and are also responding to a smaller – but still large – number of cases in which Union members are taking action against their Union (assisted and encouraged by a growing band of “No Win No Fee” solicitors).

The legal advice is that anything said officially by or on behalf of UNISON could end up being used – unpredictably – in evidence against the Union. It is all unpredictable because the case law in this area is continually evolving and so what it is reasonable to do one day may turn out later to have been unreasonable and wrong as the courts decide that the law always meant something different.

One consequence of all of this is that the Union isn’t really able to communicate effectively about the vast amount of work which is being done in relation to equal pay – and is also very reticent about publicising the various local disputes which have been springing up. We are also not really pursuing our campaigning agenda with the vigour that is called for, both I think because of the sheer scale of Head Office resources tied up by the litigation but also because I am not sure anyone in the union movement, or in Government, has a ready solution to the problem.

Of course we do know part of the solution – Government funding on a sufficient scale to fill the gender pay gap, providing recompense to those who have lost out and levelling up rather than down. This is the policy of UNISON and of the TUC and our Local Government Service Group lobbied Parliament along these lines in the summer. All we got was a little extra “capitalisation” (authority for local Councils to go further into debt to fund the costs of implementing Single Status).

Another bizarre consequence of the current wave of litigation is that, on legal advice, we cannot now formally debate Equal Pay at our decision making Conferences (for fear that a resolution drafted in clear and unambiguous terms could come to be evidence against the Union in a case in which, of necessity, we have had to settle for less than our initial demands). As we wait for cases to make their way to Europe this self-imposed silence is set to last for several years.

Now even our ability to communicate with our members at branch level is being inhibited. Such is the all pervading influence of the culture of litigation upon the Union that it is quite possible now that branches negotiating the best deal that they can get with an employer can be told that the Union will recommend members reject that deal, even though we have no viable strategy to improve it, because a cautious reading of developing case law suggests potential legal liability for the Union were it to recommend the deal.

I am generally among the first to criticise the recommendation to members of unsatisfactory settlements – but the place to resolve differences of this nature is within the Union movement through our democratic structures.

We have now reached a point at which, in relation to a central issue for our Union affecting many thousands of our members in a very direct way, we can do almost none of the things that a Union should do without first asking a lawyer and waiting (and waiting) for their advice.

We need to find a way out of this impasse that does not involve waiting for the end of all the litigation, otherwise we are simply failing to act as a trade union should in relation to one of our own key priorities.

1 comment:

Nick said...

It's a big problem, Jon, and one that I don't think the trade union rank and file activists have even begun to get a grip on.

This was going to be a longer comment but then it got too long - so now it's an article on instead!