suffragettes Suffragettes meeting in Manchester, ca. 1908. Photo: Wikipedia.

The principle of equal pay was won through struggle, writes Lindsey German

The idea that Equal Pay was given to us by the EU is doing the rounds, boosted by the assertion from the TUC and other unions. It just isn’t true. The first resolution for the principle of equal pay was passed at the TUC congress in 1888. 

The first equal pay strike to the best of my knowledge was in the summer of 1918, when London women bus workers struck supported by some women on the tubes. There was a royal commission on equal pay set up in 1944 as a result of pressure from manual workers unions for women to receive ‘the rate for the job’. There was a strike at Rolls Royce Hillington, near Glasgow, over the issue in 1943. During the 1930s a number of unions including the AEU voted for equal pay and in 1936 the House of Commons voted to give civil servants equal pay, although the prime minister refused to implement it. 

The treaty of Versailles post 1918 enshrined the rate for the job. ILO Convention 100 in 1950 called for equal pay. The postwar Labour government did not legislate for equal pay but campaigning continued. It came to a head in the late 1960s under the Wilson Labour government, a highly reforming government which legislated on abortion, divorce, legalisation of gay sex, abolition of the death penalty, abolition of theatre censorship. 

The Dagenham strike in 1968 brought the issue to the fore again, as did the emerging women’s liberation movement. There was a bill put forward in parliament in 1968 for equal pay, and Barbara Castle introduced her Equal Pay Act in 1969. A women’s campaigning organisation, NJACWER, called a demo for equal pay in the same year. 

The new law was passed in 1970. Its definition of equal pay was very narrow, and employers were given 5 years to implement it. They used those years to regrade many jobs and so avoid giving women real equal pay. There were a number of important strikes over the issue in the 70s, most famously at Trico in Brentford, west London. 

The EU played no part in this. The only connection with the EU was later when the law had to be amended to widen the definition in line with the rest of the EU, but this was long after the principle was won. 

This was a principle won through struggle: campaigns and strikes. It has all these years later still not been won: everywhere in Europe there is a gender pay gap. 

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.