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From The Socialist newspaper, 31 July 2008

End the pay gap now

A living wage for all

Based on their hourly rate in the UK in 2008, women who work full time earn 17% less than men on average. Those working part time are paid 36% less than men on average. On the basis of this gender pay gap, full-time women workers lose an average of 330,000 over their lifetimes.
Most women workers are concentrated in jobs such as childcare, catering and cleaning which are still considered traditional 'female' tasks with a low status. Although women have won the vote and other rights the historic oppression of women in class society still allows employers to make huge gains by paying women less than men, though male workers are of course also exploited.
This massive discrimination against women, which persists into retirement, must be challenged.
Jane James explains the roots of this inequality and shows how it can be fought.

The battle for equal pay for women has long been a feature of the trade union movement. Female postal workers and civil servants won equal pay in the 1950s and women teachers in 1961. But equal pay was still denied to women workers in the private sector. In many workplaces a separate 'women's rate', which was below that of the lowest male grade, was not unusual.

In 1968 women machinists at Ford went on strike to demand the same pay as men. These women workers who made the car seats at the car plant in Dagenham were outraged that they were paid 85% of what men, in the same semi-skilled grade as them, earned. They believed that their job should be in a higher grade, on a par with more skilled production jobs.

In recent interviews the women involved in this strike in 1968 described the source of their anger. In order to be employed as Ford machinists they had to pass a test on three machines. Most had been dressmakers or tailors previously. They were capable of repairing the industrial sewing machines themselves. The work was complicated and each seat had to be stitched in a set time. Many suffered injuries from the machines. What is more, they found out that men doing the same job as them, making car seats for different models, were being paid 15% more!

So on 7 June 1968 the Dagenham car plant was brought to a standstill when 187 women sewing machinists went on strike. They just stopped work and walked out of the factory. This was before the Tories' anti-trade union laws were introduced (which Labour refuses to repeal) which make it a legal requirement to ballot and give notice of plans to strike.

The Dagenham workers were joined on 17 June by female and male workers at the Ford plant in Liverpool who walked out in solidarity. This united action stopped all car production at Ford - then Britain's leading exporter. At the time the Militant newspaper, forerunner of The Socialist, quoted one of the strikers on their attitude to Ford: "What have they got to lose? 187 at 5d an hour? That's a pittance; they could get us back tomorrow. And them making millions. This is their boom year."

The strikers travelled round the country to speak at meetings explaining their case and collecting donations to fund their campaign from the labour movement. Their union, the National Union of Vehicle Builders, passed a motion calling for nationalisation of the car manufacturing industry at its conference.

The government were forced to rapidly broker a deal with Ford and the union leaders giving the machinists 100% of the semi-skilled rate (phased in over two years) and setting up a Court of Inquiry to examine the grading of their job. The women returned to work on 1 July after striking for 29 days.

This strike inspired other women to fight for equal pay. 200 women at the Lucas Acton factory went on strike for equal pay and grading rights. The National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights was set up and it organised a huge equal pay demonstration in May 1969. The Equal Pay Act of 1970, which promised legal redress of unequal pay, was brought in by the government as a result of this action.

Sixteen years later female sewing machinists at Ford once more took action. The Court of Inquiry had not upgraded their job to a skilled production grade and they had to once more take strike action which resulted in victory. Almost 40 years later this dispute provides valuable lessons for the huge number of women and men struggling in jobs that pay poverty pay.

The fight against low pay

While a number of women today earn high salaries, even they can find themselves on less pay than their male counterparts doing the same job. But the vast majority of women are concentrated in low-paid jobs. The childcare sector is one of the worst paid occupations and has an overwhelmingly female workforce. Nursery workers in private nurseries were paid an average of only 8,000 a year, based on figures from the Daycare Trust in 2005.

Robbie Segal, a Tesco worker and on the executive committee of the shop workers' union, Usdaw, explains the situation facing many shop workers:

"In retail it's not so much a question of equal pay on the shop floor but of low pay. We all earn pennies above the national minimum wage, whether it's young women and men, single parents or older women whose families have grown up. There are very few workers on full-time hours. Most are on part-time hours where benefits make up our wages.

"So many workers are led along with the carrot of promotion dangling just out of reach. For those who develop to first line managers, somewhere along the line you have to face up to the problem of how to balance family commitments with the demands of the business.

"Job sharing is not widely available, and this may become less accessible, especially in a downturn in the economy. This has a big effect on women who carry most of the burden of childcare and can be a barrier to their ability to take on greater responsibility so they miss out on better wages. Therefore it is not the norm for women to be promoted to store managers. More often they progress to jobs involving training staff or personnel responsibilities.

"Usdaw has been involved in the struggle for equal pay and has pushed for one year maternity leave and the right to ask for flexible working. The trade union movement as a whole, including Usdaw, should be campaigning for paid compassionate leave, paid parental and carers' leave and above all for a decent living wage for all workers."

Robbie is currently standing for the position of general secretary in Usdaw. See for more information.

Women and pensions

After a lifetime of low pay, working-class women often then face a retirement in poverty. One in five single female pensioners lives below the poverty line. This is because pensions are based on both pay levels and the amount of time spent at work. Where women are concentrated in low-paid and part-time jobs, while also often having to take time out to care for children and other family members, their pensions are diminished.

According to the Fawcett equality campaign only 17% of women (compared to 78% of men) are entitled to the full state pension based on their own contributions. The average male pensioner receives an occupational pension of 103 a week compared to an average of only 17 a week for a woman!

The government has brought in some reforms to address female pensioners' poverty, such as reducing the number of working years needed to qualify for the full state pension. From 2010, the number of contributory years required for the basic state pension will be reduced to 30.

A new contributory credit will also be introduced for those caring for severely disabled people for 20 hours or more a week. However, this still excludes 50,000 carers, and campaigners are still demanding the abolition of the national insurance lower earnings limit so that women on a low income can build up contributions to the basic state pension.

Equality Bill

New Labour has said its new Equality Bill will close the gap between men and women's pay but it has been watered down even before it is debated in parliament. Under the Bill public bodies will have to prioritise companies with a good equality record.

It also proposes that companies recruit more women and workers from ethnic minorities by employing a policy of 'positive discrimination' against white men. The solution is not to discriminate against white men, but for there to be enough well-paid jobs for all sections of the population. However, under pressure from big business 70% of private companies will be exempt from these measures.

The new Equalities and Human Rights Commission is also backtracking from policies that would extend maternity benefits and allow parents the right to request flexible working hours until their oldest child reaches 16 years old. Millionaire Alan Sugar, known for his role on the TV programme The Apprentice and now a government adviser on enterprise, asserts that more employers would simply not employ women of child bearing age if these rights were allowed.

Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows that each year 30,000 women in the UK leave their jobs because of pregnancy discrimination. As usual New Labour will not back any rights for workers if it interferes too much with private profits. The New Labour National Policy Forum has just voted to maintain the anti-trade union laws.

Local government

In July of this year thousands of low-paid women local government workers took strike action alongside their male colleagues for a pay rise in line with inflation. Many of them are employed by councils that are slashing pay and jobs under the Single Status agreement.

In 1997 unions and employers in local government signed this agreement which was supposed to address the issue of women's unequal pay. Eleven years later there are ongoing disputes and thousands of cases waiting to be heard at tribunals. There are, according to the Guardian, 50,000 equal pay claims waiting to go to tribunals and this figure could increase to around 150,000 by the end of this year.

The agreement was supposed to end discrimination between manual and non-manual workers, achieve pay and grading in line with equal pay legislation and to implement a maximum week of 37 hours for all workers.

No extra funding has been given to councils, so any increases given on the basis of regrading are being offset with pay cuts and worse conditions for other workers, robbing Peter and Petra to pay Pauline. Some union leaders have argued that if a number of male workers (and a large number of women workers too) suffer a pay cut then they should recognise that this is to further the cause of equal pay! The solution is to fight these cuts while demanding equal pay, not to accept that some workers will have to take a pay cut or longer hours in order to bring about equal pay.

Where workers organise determined action, employers can be forced not to cut anyone's pay. Glasgow council was forced to protect the pay of 16% of its workers who were going to lose pay following regrading after all workers threatened to go on strike. Greenwich council workers have not suffered any extension of hours or loss in pay following a determined battle. A campaign involving mass meetings of union members and lobbies of the council won equal pay without any reduction in pay or conditions of workers. In both these battles Socialist Party trade union members made up part of the leadership.

Onay Kasab, branch secretary of Greenwich Unison, explained their success: "The branch has a history of successfully defending members. Care workers faced pay cuts of thousands of pounds a year and cuts to leave and maternity pay. Mental health social workers were told last year to expect their call-out payments to be cut by 2,500 a year. The branch won these battles by uniting workers in defence and solidarity campaigns."

The Single Status agreement, which Socialist Party members and other lefts in Unison have always opposed, has not brought about equal pay for women workers. The whole project is now in a real mess. Local government unions have left each council workforce to fight alone against their employer for no cuts in pay or conditions instead of organising a national struggle for all council workers.

While supporting changes to the law to protect and improve women's rights, the Ford strike and recent action against Single Status in local government show that united struggles by female and male workers are necessary to win many battles and to gain and extend legal rights.

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The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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In The Socialist 31 July 2008:

Voters reject Labour: Build a new workers' party

Glasgow East by-election: New Labour's support evaporates


The not so 'green' Beijing Olympics

Socialist Party campaigns

Gestures to the low paid are not enough: Fight for a living wage

Feature: End the pay gap now

Whine and dine

EDF - taking the rise

Stop the far-right

'A Workers' MP on a Worker's Wage'

Campaigners keep fighting to save local post offices

Socialist Party review

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Socialist Party workplace news

Passport staff strike

Land registry in third pay walk out

Passport to profits

In brief


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