Equal Value in the NHS: Fight for equal pay!

Peter Doyle, an organiser for the public sector union Unison in Cumbria, Northern England, reports on the Equal Value claims that his union region is submitting to the government to get women workers in traditional "women's jobs" in the health service the same levels of pay as workers in traditional "men's jobs". They are on the verge of an important victory.

I work as a full-time officer for Unison in the north of England. I wasn't satisfied with the role of the union, or lack of role of the union, over pay and particularly that of low paid women. The majority of women we represent are ancillary workers inside the health service, and manual workers in local government. In 1995 I put forward a series of proposals for Equal Value claims; Equal Value claims that I thought we couldn't lose. They were based on groups of women in traditional so-called "women's jobs". We compared their jobs or the work that they did with men who worked in traditional "men's jobs". In the health service men are usually employed in the works department: plumbers, electricians, building workers, etc.

I put forward a proposal in 1995, but was told that it couldn't go forward, because the Tory government was attempting to dismantle national pay bargaining. If we as a union lodged these claims, they in turn would scrap national pay bargaining. I didn't agree with that, but at the end of the day I didn't have the clout within the union to force the issue.

Then came the election in May 1997. Approximately a month before the election, the national officer for the health service at the time, a good trade union official by the name of Malcolm Wing, had been promised by Alan Milburn that PFI was off the agenda, and that we as a union had nothing to worry about. Two weeks after the election, PFI was back on the agenda of the Labour government and Alan Milburn in particular, along with John Prescott, were claiming that PFI was actually their idea in the first place. Permission was given to go ahead with the first PFI hospital in the UK and that was in Carlisle, which is part of my patch. On the basis that we had been basically betrayed and lied to, I asked Malcolm Wing if he would now allow me to lodge my equal value claim. He was willing to allow it. And so we did, we lodged the Equal Value claims.

Within the Equal Value claims there were 13 separate distinct work groups, the vast majority of whom were women, ranging from nurses, cooks and catering assistants, to domestics, and seamstresses. We used men occupied in the works department as comparators. I spent a lot of time with people of the works department, some of whom are Unison members, but the majority are in the craft unions such as UCATT, and the AEEU. These men were very sympathetic to the union lodging an Equal Value claim and using them as comparators.

We identified 13 distinct work groups, and lodged 50 individual initial applications at an industrial tribunal. We now have 1,000 applications lodged at the same tribunal. It's been going on now for four and a half years. Reports have been produced by a group of people called "independent expert witnesses"; these are academics, ex-ACAS types, who have come in and compared the work of the women members with the work of the men. We have seen interim reports produced by these people and they are very good. In fact on the strength of the interim report we think we have won every claim. They are in the process of producing final reports, and they have notified us that final reports have already been submitted to the tribunal on 6 out of the 13 work groups. We think, in fact we know, that we are going to win them. The effect and the impact of this Equal Value claim will be tremendous.

A basic grade staff nurse is currently on £17,000 p.a., after she has been in work for 5 years, on an incremental scale. We have compared D grade nurses to the Craftsman Supervisors in the works department. The Craftsman Supervisor is an electrician with a 2-week training course on how to supervise men. The nurse has degree level training, she has additional training over a period of 5 years, she then is responsible for 3 or 4 wards and can supervise 30-40 staff of differing grades within the nursing profession; the Craftsman Supervisor supervises a maximum of nine men. The Craftsman Supervisor is on a 37-hour week, the nurse is on a 37.5-hour week. The nurse is paid £17,000 p.a., the craftsman supervisor earns £27,000 p.a.; a difference of £10,000 a year. The Craftsman Supervisor, if he works Saturdays and Sundays, gets paid time and a half, and double time; the nurse gets paid time and a third, and time and two thirds.

Our claim at the tribunal is that the work the nurses do, on the paediatric ward looking after children, on the cancer ward, on the intensive care ward, where they deal with people in Road-Traffic-Accidents, is at least of equal value to the craftsman supervisor, who supervises electricians, and plumbers and joiners who fix broken pipes, windows, etc. We know that we're going to win that one.

Out of the total of 1,000 we have in the region of 600 claims for nurses; each of those nurses will be looking at settlements of at least £10,000 p.a. backdated for 11 years (because it's got to be backdated, from the date of settlement to the date of application, which is 1997, and then for 6 years).

We then looked at cooks. The cooks in the health service have to have City and Guilds qualifications: City and Guilds 702, and 703. And we compared the mainly women cooks to the male joiners, who also must have City and Guilds 702, and 703. We have argued that the work of the skilled chefs and cooks is as important as that of the hospital joiner; not necessarily more important, but at least of equal value. The cook earns £8,700 p.a. for a 39-hour working week, the joiner gets £14,800 p.a. for a 37-hour week. So when we win, the cooks are going to have a two hour reduction in their working week, and they are going to have their pay claim backdated for 11 years. This applies to the domestics, the admin and clerical staff, the cooks, bottle washers, etc.

ACAS has estimated that the impact of this claim on one trust alone will be £39 million in backdated pay, and we now think that this is rather a conservative estimate - we think it will be more than that. If one nurse gets £100,000 in backdated pay and there are 600 of them, that alone is £60 million; and there are another 400 applications for various other grades of staff who will get equal sums of money. It will also cost the trust an additional £11 million p.a. on the pay bill.

Once it goes to the tribunal and we win it, the decision of the tribunal will be that Whitley council rates of pay discriminate against women. In the health service 99% of staff are on terms and conditions the same as those of Whitley council. So the claim blows the lid off this particular box that ancillary workers and nurses have been trapped in for many years. That is low pay and poor terms and conditions, and that's the green light for every Unison member in the country to lodge similar claims. That means that the money that is being put into the health service now will pale into insignificance compared with the money that they will need to put in to resolve these new issues of pay.

Given the claim has been going on for four and a half years, I have actually had more publicity from the Royal College of Nursing's union magazine, than I have had from Unison's own magazine. Some people in Unison are opposed to the whole idea of lodging equal value claims. The SWP and some of the sects criticise lodging an Equal Value claim; they say it fosters illusions in the minds of workers in the power of the state. What they don't realise is that we've built the branch in Carlisle from 230 members four and a half years ago, to 1,800 - that is the biggest growth in any trade union branch anywhere in the UK.

We have gone from 230 to 1,800 and we're still growing, and it's all been on the strength of the equal value claim. We have put a lot of preparation into the claim, we have organised regular meetings with all the applicants. We have mass meetings of sometimes 500 members who come along to hear what the latest development is on the equal value claim; the applicants go out and recruit more applicants; and we have written to the applicants on a regular basis. We have raised the workers' consciousness of trade unionism and we have raised the consciousness of thousands of women in this part of Cumbria about their status and what they are entitled to. We have organised the whole campaign of equal value in the traditions of good trade unionism, involving the members, involving them all the way along the line, calling meetings, giving them regular reports, and buoying up their enthusiasm. As Marxists we believe in fighting to improve workers' conditions, using any and every avenue available to us. Only a hopeless sectarian would argue that a pay rise is not worth having unless it is won by a strike.