Who would want to be in the shoes of the SNP leadership of Glasgow City Council right now? Its 18 months in control of the country’s biggest local authority has seen it firefighting – in the case of the Glasgow School of Art, literally – a succession of crises, most of which were not of its own making.
This is not to suggest those at the helm have not made mistakes; there are questions to be asked about the way business owners in Sauchiehall Street were treated in the wake of that blaze, for example; but it is also true that the stars have aligned against them. Yet their rivals continue to capitalise on their inability to resolve problems previous Labour-led administrations ignored (and sometimes exacerbated) for the best part of two decades.
Later this week, Glasgow services will be severely affected as Unison and GMB members take part in what is being billed as the biggest equal pay strike ever seen in the UK. More than 8,000 workers, mostly women who work in catering, cleaning and caring, will forsake their posts for 48 hours in an attempt to force the council to settle their claims.
It’s a historic moment. Not since the 1915 rent strikes have the city’s women come together in such numbers to face down injustice; and an injustice has certainly been done. These low-paid workers – the city’s linchpins – have been cheated out of their rightful earnings for most of their working lives. And now, when a resolution appeared to be in sight, the process has stalled again. According to Action 4 Equality Scotland, which represents most of the women, 10 months after the SNP-led administration began negotiations, the issue of comparators has still not been resolved. Add to that a deterioration in the working conditions of homecarers, and it is easy to see why anger has boiled over. I have nothing but admiration for the way these women are fighting their corner.
At the same time, I can’t help feeling a degree of sympathy towards the SNP councillors now under attack from the very same unions and politicians whose refusal to recognise the value of women’s work led to the accruing of a £500 million-plus debt.
It was the decision in 2006 by the then Labour administration to implement a discriminatory pay and grades structure, and the decision of later ones to oppose the women’s consequent pay claims, that created this shambles.
Those decisions were facilitated (some would say driven) by male-dominated unions, including the GMB, which were all too happy to see their male workers’ pay and bonuses protected.
When the SNP took control last year, it accepted the women had been underpaid and pledged to resolve the claims, even though it understood the issue would cast a shadow over its first term and potentially deprive it of a second.
It may well be true, as Action 4 Equality claims, that it is failing to deliver on that pledge. The organisation says the council officers leading the negotiations – the very same council officers who advised previous administrations not to settle – are still proving uncooperative.
And yet, the SNP has achieved three major goals: it ended the court action, it brought Cordia, the arms-length organisation for homecarers , back in-house and it scrapped the discredited pay and grades scheme and replaced it with a new one.
I am not cynical enough to suggest the GMB is only standing up for female members now because the SNP is in charge, though there were no equal pay strikes under Labour; I prefer to believe it has more to do with the fact that the union now has two women – Rhea Wolfson (the Labour candidate for Livingston) and Hazel Nolan – as regional organisers.
In any case, it would be a strange thing to criticise a trade union for finally doing its job. But I do think some humility on the part of both the GMB and Unison, which was also slow to offer support, would be welcome. As for those Labour politicians attacking the SNP administration over equal pay: they are shameless and must take us all for fools. Do they really think our attention spans are so short?
This same brass neck was on display in the wake of the announcement over the need for £7m repairs to the Winter Gardens, the glass house attached to the People’s Palace, which could, potentially, see both close. Were that to happen it would be a blow to the city, but the council has already said it is working on a plan to create a new fire escape which would allow the museum to remain open.
Despite this, Scottish Labour last week started a “Don’t evict the people from their palace” petition. While it engaged in petty tactics, Glasgow City councillor Mhairi Hunter resisted the temptation to take a cheap shot back, saying it wasn’t yet clear whether the damage to the Winter Gardens was the result of years of neglect or whether such structures have a finite shelflife.
However, it is worth noting the glass house at Tollcross closed in 2010 while Labour was in control and has not reopened, which surely means they should not be throwing stones at other people’s. It is also worth remembering every funding decision taken by the SNP is taken in the shadow of the forthcoming Equal Pay Bill.
If Scottish Labour wanted to score political points, a fairer approach would have been to highlight Scottish Government cuts and the council tax freeze (as indeed some did). It could have pointed out Glasgow’s museums, which rival the National Museums in prestige, and outstrip them in visitor numbers, receive no funding from the Scottish or UK Governments – and that way back in 2009, the then culture secretary, Michael Russell, accepted that the current system failed to recognise the importance of the city’s attractions.
In the long term, the crisis over the Winter Gardens might also feed into the debate on local government reform. One of Glasgow’s problems is that its most affluent suburbs lie outside the local authority boundary. The number of council taxpayers in Glasgow has dwindled over the years, while the scale of the social problems it has to deal with has increased.
Earlier this month, an academic study suggested the number of authorities in Scotland should be reduced from 32 to 17, with a new Greater Glasgow council combining the city of Glasgow with Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and East and West Dunbartonshire. Other alternatives might be to allow councils to raise more of their own revenue.
Of course, none of this helps Glasgow now. And the SNP leadership does have to take responsibility for fulfilling its manifesto commitments. I hope this week’s strike focuses minds and that the women’s claims will be settled as quickly as possible.
But I also hope, as the negotiations resume, that Scottish Labour will remember which party’s councillors were responsible for the city’s female workers being treated as second class citizens. And that, when the debt is settled, it will thank the SNP administration for clearing up the mess it made.