It could have been a really great initiative, but Unison had to spoil it. The struggle for equal pay between genders is a difficult one. Whilst making equal pay between sexes doing the same job was a relatively simple one, in terms of legislation, the gap in pay persists, largely due to glass ceilings and different pay scales between professions.
For example, IT professionals and cleaners are paid significantly different amounts even though both make substantial contributions to the economy (imagine a world without cleaners!). The fact that most IT workers are men and cleaners are often women means that, as is the case with so many professions, it contributes to the gendered gap in pay. It's harder to legislate against and, I'd say, the role of the trade unions in fighting this disparity is all the more important.
So it was very disappointing to read today UNISON's approach to fighting discrimination in Midlothian council. Sticking up for teaching assistants...
"Union representatives argue that it makes no sense for someone with such a responsible, skilled job helping children with special needs to be paid considerably less than someone who digs holes for a living. About 95% of classroom assistants are women, whereas gravedigging and road maintenance are male careers. Historically, councils have paid male employees far more than their female staff – often grouped together as the three Cs, the cleaners, cooks and carers."Peter Hunter, a legal officer from Unison says "the communication skills needed to speak to disabled children are very great, and these are much more challenging jobs than just digging a hole in the ground".
You can sod right off Hunter.
We don't fight for equality by dissing manual workers who have never, I repeat never, had the respect or status that they deserve in society. The key inequality in society is not between those who eat economy beans for their tea but between them and the rich and powerful.
Both classroom assistants and gravediggers make invaluable contributions to society and for the union to try to boost one group at the expense of the other is something you'd expect of the employers not the union. Unfortunately it's not the first time a union has done the enemy's work for them.
Whilst classroom assistants employed by Midlothian council take home a paltry £9,880, gravediggers (also "represented" by Unison) earn £14,000. How many of them will be living in luxury on that sort of wage? Yes, it's a disparity, but one between low paid workers employed by the government. The solution is not to pull down gravediggers but to raise up the salaries of the everyone on low incomes.
But, what's this? Victory is ours! The Guardian reports;
"Part of the problem lies in the bonus systems many councils have which give men in manual jobs an extra 20%-50% on top of their salary. Women in caring roles have never been allocated extra bonus payments. Midlothian council has promised to remove all bonus payments by the end of June."Isn't that wonderful? Below average wage workers have had their pay packets slashed! We can all go home, socialism has arrived. Although, if we want to teach manual workers that people who argue for equal pay are actually trying to cut their already small salaries then we're undermining the ability of the unions to achieve anything at all, which would be a very bad thing.
The thing is any union official who characterises a manual worker's job as "just digging a hole in the ground" needs their head examined on their way to collect their P45. Manual workers die earlier, work harder and contribute more to society that virtually any other group in the country. Can the same be said of Peter Hunter? Not by a long shot.
A few years ago I worked as a binman for a bit and it almost killed me. Those guys work extremely hard doing a job that literally prevents society from collapsing. Binmen are also generally regarded as the lowest of the low and have a status in society only marginally higher than stray dogs or rats. The world is on its head and the left should be promoting the status (and pay) of cleaners, gravediggers, posties and every other group of overworked, essential workers.
The fact is that the pay gap between the sexes is extremely significant in the UK and in material terms means that far more working women live in poverty than men. If you take average gross hourly earnings there is a distance of 21.1% between men and women. That's a disgrace but it isn't something that's just inevitable under capitalism. In Italy the equivalent figure is just 4.4%.
Is this because Italy has a radical feminist government? Apparently not. However, Italy has been blessed over the last fifty years with a strong and vibrant left and a well organised, unbeaten trade union movement. It's not they are flawless, or beyond reproach on any issue - but they have fought for and won on issues that we've barely begun to touch.
New Labour are clearly not going to address the gender pay gap so it's no use hoping that someone is going to step in and do the union's job for it. Where we take up any old argument to win on a case by case basis, as with Midlothian, we may well lose the war trying to win a battle.
It's probably a cliche but the old slogan of "unity is strength" is one that the trade union movement is rightly proud of. In Midlothian Unison has severely let it's members down by playing them off against each other and all they have to show for it so far is a cut in pay for manual workers.