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International Socialism, June 1976


Margaret Renn

Labour’s No-deal for Women


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, p.5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Margaret Renn writes: On 5 May Denis Healey announced his new deal. Hidden in the middle of his announcement came a bombshell for women workers. ‘In the new pay round there will be no special provisions like those needed last year for equal pay.’ He repeated it in his press release. And again on television.

The Department of Employment, quick to allay any fears that there had been a sell out on equal pay, explained that the Equal Pay Act had come into effect on 29 December 1975 so there was no longer any need to make any special provision. Women have equal pay. The law says so.

The reality is very different. In the first four months of this year there have been numerous equal pay disputes. Most have involved small numbers of women, in unions running equal pay campaigns, TASS, GMWU, APEX. The notable exception was the dispute at Treforest, South Wales, where 400 women engineers were still being paid on the old female rate, although it no longer exists. They were defeated by the threat of severe redundancy. The same problem will arise in other poorly organised factories, with managements who don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, the Equal Pay Act.

Besides the disputes there have been endless negotiations and hundreds of cases taken to the Industrial Tribunals.

The Tribunals have been inconsistent in their findings. In some towns you win, in others you lose. In many cases the law itself is being redefined, more narrowly than the ‘equal pay for the same or broadly similar work’ wording of the Act. One Tribunal, in Leicester, found that a woman social worker had no case because she had more responsibility than the man she was claiming with. In Birmingham the Tribunal found against two women who did the same work as men loading rifles, because the men also did some clerical work – the sort of work women have traditionally done, and been paid less for.

The Tribunals are made up of three members, from the CBI, the TUC and the legal profession. The latter is the ‘independent’ member. But there are no directives from the government for interpreting the laws, and the laws themselves have very vague wordings. So the Tribunals are going their own way – depending on the balance of forces on the particular Tribunal.

Although the law itself has not been changed or challenged by the Chancellor, and in theory women will still be able to invoke it to back up their claim for equal pay, the deal does undermine the law, and the unions’ ability or preparedness to fight.

In the 1975 White Paper – The Attack on Inflation – which spelt out the pay deal for 1975-1976 the wording was quite clear:

‘Final steps towards the attainment of equal pay for women by the end of 1975, in line with the equal pay legislation and TUC policy objectives, will be in addition to the £6 figure.’

Now the employers will be able to say they are not able to pay Equal Pay increases over and above the 4½ per cent. Local union officials will have to think even more carefully about backing women prepared to fight.

Now the unions that have been running equal pay campaigns will be in a dilemma, between the interests of the women members and the organisers who have been working to recruit new women members and fight for equal pay, and the big boys who agreed to the deal, and who won’t want anyone to rock the boat. The pressure will be on the women – wait, just for another year.

But the problem of Equal Pay as defined, even in the narrowest terms, by the law is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is women’s earnings.

In October 1975, women’s average .weekly earnings (all industries) were £34.19 compared to £59.58 for men. The difference is not accounted for by longer hours – men worked on average 43.6 hours to women’s 37.

Women’s jobs are low paid jobs. And equal pay will only make a marginal difference. Last year the gap between men’s and women’s earnings closed by about 2 per cent. Women’s pay as a percentage of men’s pay is lower now than it was in 1958.

The gap can only be closed if there is a decision and a movement to close it. Because the Healey deal does nothing for the low paid, and sabotages the notion of equal pay, any drift in favour of women will be curtailed.

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