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International Socialism, January 1977



Equal Pay


From International Socialism (1st series), No.94, January 1977, pp.15-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


1976 was the year that the Equal Pay Act came into force. The employers’ attempts to evade the new law, often backed by government tribunals, led to a number of strikes for equal pay. The most important was the 20-week strike at Trico in West London. At the same time, many more women workers moved into action on other issues like the cuts. This briefing reviews the experience of the Equal Pay Act’s first year and of the struggles of women workers in 1976

It is a year since the Equal Pay Act came into force, to a fanfare of praise from liberal and left-wing opinion alike. The Act, together with the Sex Discrimination Act, was supposed to usher in a period of genuine equality for women, of rights guaranteed by law, which any woman could claim.

There were of course a number of problems with this view – notably the fact that employers had had five years in which to prepare themselves. Five years in which to rig systems, training, shiftwork and manning, to ensure that when the Act came into force it would cost them as little as possible.

Between 1970 and 1974 the London engineering employers alone issued half-a-dozen long circulars telling management how to get round the new laws, and in the last 12 months every one of their devices has been seen in operation. The Act itself has been described as ‘a tissue of loopholes’: not surprising as the then Labour government appointed one Francis Bennion as one of the main architects of the law. (The same Bennion who brought the right-wing prosecution against Peter Hain for trying to stop the South African rugby tour in 1969.)

Equal Pay Disputes

The reforming image of the Act may have been tarnished before it even came in, but there were many groups of women prepared to take on their employers over the issue. Often women in newly organised white-collar areas have taken up pay and grading issues quite independently of trade union officialdom.

There have been a number of long and impressive strikes: notably for 20 weeks at Trico, 18 weeks at Cockburn’s Valves (Glasgow), and 13 weeks at Newton Derby (Derby). All of these strikes were won by the women.

In all there have been about twenty equal pay strikes of any size, quite a number considering the general low level of strike activity.

But most of these disputes have been very small, often as few as six or ten workers. Apart from Trico and Cockburn’s Valves they were isolated, and they were overwhelmingly white collar. In the engineering sector – the area with the greatest concentration of unequal pay – there have been only a. handful of disputes. At GEC in Treforest, South Wales, some 200 AUEW women struck for six weeks before returning to work with a settlement a long way short of their original demands.

At Trico a strike which looked very lost was eventually won – but at tremendous cost to the women. Blacking was organised late and badly, and the union ran the dispute in a way that seemed more designed to make a cult of the strikers than to win a victory as quickly as possible. It was typical of the whole story that the union covered up the terms of the settlement, which involved an equalisation of piecework rates between several departments.

A total of only some 1,500 women have been involved in all the equal pay strikes that took place in 1976 – a third of these in the two AEUW disputes. Many more than that have taken applications to Equal Pay tribunals.


It would be entirely wrong to assume a lack of trade union militancy from these figures. On the contrary, women have been right in the forefront of the most crucial battles against the public sector cuts, for the right to work and for union recognition. Many more women have been fighting against cuts in school meal services, school cleaning services and education, for example, than for equal pay. On the massive November 17th demonstration against the cuts there were more~women workers than at any previous trade union demonstration of the type. Women NUPE members were particularly heavily represented.

Of course women’s employment in the public sector is very high – the growth of that sector has been built on low-paid. female labour. Women in these areas are now particularly threatened, and the attack takes many vicious forms, as for example the attempted cuts for Scottish school cleaners, first in the Borders, then the Highlands.

These cuts in services, and the depression of real wages under the Social Contract is. producing a fighting response among these women workers. Their very lack of ‘tradition’, and freedom from trade union conservatism allows the militancy and imaginative initiative exemplified by the current occupation of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London.

Women workers in manufacturing industry have also been fighting over unemployment and union recognition as well as equal pay. Courtaulds is a good example of this, with thousands of women workers facing the sack in several depressed areas. At the beginning of 1976 women in Courtaulds were involved in a month-long battle in several South Wales factories to win the full £6 rise they were entitled to under the pay policy.

In at least three recognition disputes in 1976 women have led the way: at Colourtrend (Rugeley), where they were joined on the picket line by the first Right to Work march; at Chamberlain Phipps in Northampton, where a sweetheart deal was worked out between the footwear trade union and their employer and the AUEW district secretary effectively tried to sabotage them; and most recently at Grunwicks in North West London, where a number of Asian women, previously unorganised, have stuck it out against a reactionary employer for almost as long as the Trico women, and for many of the same reasons of official union incompetence and timidity, at great cost to themselves.

Official Policies

The quite startling numbers of women fighting for jobs and minimum trade union rights as compared with the small groups actually reaching strike point over equal pay would be perplexing but for two factors. The first is that last year above all others women faced a choice – either they fought or they were faced with a return to their ‘traditional’ role in the home. The second is the way union officialdom has manipulated the equal pay issue.

The most militant union on equal pay is certainly TASS: it has been involved in the largest number of equal pay strikes, and to its credit, has negotiated some very large increases for women workers this year, for example rises of up to £18 a week in the Scottish factories of General Motors.

But it is significant that TASS has not taken on the issue of women draughtsmen. There are none, except for a very few ‘tracers’, who are fast disappearing from the engineering industry. All the equal pay militancy, and ‘men’s pay for women’, has concerned the clerical areas and newly recruited membership, not the skilled and often reactionary male-dominated areas in the drawing office. Small wonder that male TASS members crossed the Trico picket line every day.

The AUEW engineering sector has, as noted, given little lead over equal pay. The national engineering agreement (which still exists despite the bureaucracy’s determination to bury it) has given women equality only with the unskilled rate. But the vast majority of women engineering workers are in semi-skilled work like light assembly. This is the trap in which the women at Treforest found themselves, and the AUEW conspicuously failed to do anything about challenging the employers on this grading issue. If they did, it might open the way for really major gains for sections of the engineering workforce, and inevitable confrontation with employers and the government.

The same goes for the general unions, the TGWU and GMWU. Like the AUEW they have given limited official support to women’s disputes: for example the recognition and £6 claim by TGWU women at Orlake Plastics in Dagenham. In the case of the GMWU, in the very week that they published a useful guide on equal pay and made an equal pay strike official at the Wednesbury factory of H.J. Barlow, the local official allowed male GMWU members to cross the women’s picket line.

Certain unions have conspicuously worse records: the EETPU with some 40,000 women members (mainly in electrical engineering) appears to have done nothing about equal pay other than losing a recent industrial tribunal claim at Ferranti in Edinburgh. The NUT, with a large majority of women members, fought one successful and important case for equal pay for a woman PE teacher in Wales. This has been followed by a deafening silence. To launch a fight on equal pay among teachers would be to undermine the hierarchy of Burnham scales that the union has fought for on behalf of the small minority of highly-paid and predominantly male senior teachers and head teachers. It might also give more of a role to local bargaining and rank and file control. A similar criticism can be levelled at both NALGO and the CPSA.

Workings of the Act

It is necessary to say something about the way the legal machinery of equal pay legislation is working. It is a widespread misconception that women always lose at industrial tribunals. This is not the case. Some 35 to 40 per cent of tribunal cases are now being won, and the new appeals system (the Employment Appeals Tribunal) is reversing many of the earlier tribunal decisions against women.

It is still true, however that it is important not to trust the tribunal system. Its main’ effect, as with tribunals on redundancy or dismissal, is to isolate the individual, and separate completely the issue in question from general improvements for the workforce. Nevertheless, rank and file militants will inevitably become involved with tribunals, as they do with ACAS, the government’s conciliation fire brigade. The boycott tactic cannot always be supported unquestioningly. Would it be better to go to the tribunal with large numbers of strikers?

Apart from the tribunals, the main institution administering equal pay legislation is the Central Arbitration Committee. This body, set up under ACAS, has both employers and trade unionists sitting on it. It advises or arbitrates on equal pay questions in collective agreements, and is one way for reluctant trade union officials to get round the incomes policy for groups of workers.

Impact of the Act

For all its inadequacies, the Equal Pay Act has made itself felt. However imperfect the Act, its image is one of women being entitled to equal pay and equal treatment. The press has commented on it – often in facetious terms, but still in a way that has been breaking down old trade union ideas. In the past the situation of the Birmingham Post Office – where women were forced out of their jobs by the male dominated union branch – would have been commonplace. Now it is something of a rarity.

This change is going to be important in the future. Women can no longer afford to be made redundant – the second wage is vital for any family – and both single and married women are demanding the right to economic independence. In this the fight for equal pay is closely linked to the fight for the right to work, and the growing momentum of demands for an end to the Social Contract.

Equal Pay is one route for women to gain higher pay, and in that struggle, to gain the confidence and experience of collective organisation. A political campaign focussing on equal pay as a central demand could draw many more working class women towards our perspectives.

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