It is simply an iron law of working-class life that you never betray your fellow worker during a legitimate and official strike. You never cross a picket line and take the side of the boss. You never scab on your colleagues.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday in Glasgow almost 8,000 predominantly low paid women workers will stop work in pursuit of an Equal Pay claim that stretches back over 12 years and involves up to 12,000 women employed by Glasgow City Council. To say the action is overdue is an understatement. To say it is just is to state the bleeding obvious.
All Glasgow City Council Education and care workers, who used to work for an arms-length company called Cordia before the new SNP minority administration took the welcome decision to bring them all back in-house, will strike. So will school support for learning staff, child development officers, school administration workers, home carers, caterers and all other workers in these services. These workers are overwhelmingly women and they perform essential duties every day of the year. They care for the elderly, the vulnerable and children with special needs. The City Council has condemned the action because those most in need of care and support will suffer. But no strike action is without consequences. The women feel they have no other choice.
It is, however, even worse. Not only did a Labour council deny low paid women workers compensation for years of underpayment over the last 13 years they also went to court to fight against these equal pay claims and squandered £2.5 million pounds in legal bills and associated admin costs thus delaying the inevitable and building up the level of compensation eventually owed. They not only denied justice to these women they made the situation even worse. Some estimates to settle the outstanding claims now range from £500 million to £1 billion, although the council disputes those figures. No wonder that Labour administration was kicked out of office in May last year with the loss of 13 seats and almost 16,000 votes.
The SNP Council leader says the claim will be settled soon but according to the unions that was a promise made last August and progress has been far too slow.
I have sympathy with the current SNP administration and contempt for the previous Labour one. The equal pay claim should have been settled many years ago. No doubt about it. But when the women carers, cleaners, caterers and education support staff visit Tesco or Asda to buy their weekly shop the checkout assistants don’t accept promises to pay sometime in the future. They demand money to pay for the groceries there and then. Just as landlords and banks demand money to pay for rents and mortgages. So although I sympathise with the plight the new SNP council faces in trying to clean up the mess left by Labour in the city my support and that of all trade unionists should be with the women workers.
Throughout history women workers have had to show incredible courage and strength to stand up to intimidating bosses who have denied them equal treatment and equal pay. From the Match Girls of Bryant & May in London, some as young as 13, who struck in 1888 to prevent a damning health report being covered up and won improved conditions, to the women transport workers in London who had to strike in 1918 to get the same war bonus that had been paid to the men but not them. Through to the 187 Dagenham Ford women workers who struck in 1968 against unfair grading and unequal pay. Despite ridicule and management intimidation these trail-blazing women eventually forced Ford Motor Company to improve their pay and treat them equally and their action led directly to the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act. It is in that spirit and on those shoulders that the Glasgow City Council women stand next week.
At the age of 8, I was acquainted with the basics of trade union action and solidarity when my mother sat me on her knee to explain why there were no lights and we had to light candles in the house. I was crying because I couldn’t play with my small plastic soldiers on the floor. She explained how electricity was generated from coal which had to be extracted from deep mines underground and the job was dangerous and hard but underpaid and the men concerned were on strike so that’s why the lights were out. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t really placated. I was still upset that I couldn’t play with my toy soldiers. But that incident has stayed in my mind ever since.
That was 1972 during the miners’ strike which caused electricity blackouts because of coal shortages. My mum had left school without any qualifications and worked as a cleaner and in pubs. She eventually joined a union and started to organise other women bar staff. The big brewers at the time were Tennants Caledonian. They refused to recognize the union and wouldn’t negotiate improved rights and wages. My mum helped organise a strike of bar staff across Scotland to force the company to recognise them.
Trade unions are the most basic and important organisations that allow workers to be protected from bullying and exploitative bosses. The rich and powerful hate trade unions because they threaten their power and privileges. From better rates of pay to equal pay, from employment protection to holiday pay and sick pay through to proper pensions and reductions in the working week. All major improvements in workplace conditions are due to the trade union movement. Every worker should join a union. You may never need your union but when you do you will be glad you joined. They are far from perfect but they are necessary.
The final word belongs to the American writer, journalist and social activist Jack London (1876-1916) who expertly summed up in his 1915 poem what a scab was and why you should never be one:
Ode To A Scab
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad and the vampire, he had some awful stuff left with which he made a scab.
A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water-logged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumour of rotten principles.
When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out. No man has a right to scab as long as there is a pool of water deep enough to drown his body in, or a rope long enough to hang his carcass with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared to a scab. For betraying his master he had the character to hang himself – the scab hasn’t.
Esau sold his birth right for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his saviour for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strike breaker sells his birth right, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.