You would never know from the media coverage but unions have been fighting for equal pay for women for more than a hundred years – and continue to do so.

The vast majority of tribunal cases brought by women are backed by the unions, which also continue to lead the way in negotiating equal pay for hundreds of thousands of other women, on both a collective and individual basis.

Mark Berry, Thompsons' National Coordinator for Equal Pay (Local Government), charts the history of union involvement (which started over a hundred years ago) in the fight for equal pay for women members.

Over the years

The TUC passed its first resolution in favour of equal pay in 1888 when the idea of paying women the same as men was nothing short of revolutionary. It had to struggle against the odds for nearly a century before the tide began to turn in its favour (in the sense of government support anyway) in the form of the Equal Pay Act 1970.

The statute turned out to be anything but straightforward in its application, however, and after many years of backing thousands of cases (some of them lasting a decade), there has been a growing conviction among union reps that negotiation might be a quicker and less expensive route.

In the public sector at least, that has also proven problematic with the government refusing to provide the necessary funding to make equal pay a reality.

Although the struggle is clearly far from over, today there are millions of women who no longer have to suffer the injustice of unequal pay, thanks to the determination of their union to fight the battle for them and keep the issue in the limelight.

1880s Sporadic industrial action at the Bryant and May match works in the east end of London culminates in the iconic and successful “match girls” strike in 1888. 
The TUC passes its first resolution on the issue of equal pay in 1888, but it is almost a century before the government takes any notice.
1960s The Ford sewing machinists walk out when told they are to be graded in category B (less skilled production jobs) rather than category C (more skilled production jobs) and, to add insult to injury, are to be paid 85 per cent of the B rate. They go back to work when it has been agreed they should be paid the full rate, phased in over two years.
1970s The labour movement celebrates the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act (which came into force in 1975), for which it had fought for many years. The hourly pay gap for full time women workers in 1975 is 30 per cent.
1983 Equal Pay Act is amended to provide for “equal pay for work of equal value” with “male comparators” in the same employment.
1984 GMB union launches the first “equal pay for work of equal value” case on behalf of canteen cook Julie Hayward. She claimed her work was of equal value to that of painters, joiners and thermal insulation engineers (Hayward -v- Cammell Laird).
The Ford sewing machinists are finally regraded to C category by a panel of inquiry.
1986 The MSF union (now part of Unite) embarks on one of the longest and most famous equal pay cases in legal history. NHS speech therapist Pam Enderby argues that her work and that of her colleagues – mostly women – is of equal value to clinical psychologists – predominantly men. Her employers said the difference in pay could be justified because the two groups bargain separately (Enderby -v- Frenchay Health Authority).
1988 The House of Lords finds in favour of Julie Hayward declaring that, although she received an overall package that was broadly equivalent to that of her comparators, her basic wage was the material factor that had to be considered.
1991 Unison wins £813,000 for 16 former British Gas women workers compulsorily retired in 1986 at the age of 60 (Foster -v- British Gas).
North Yorkshire County Council cuts the wages of 1,300 school dinner ladies to keep the work in-house, but manages not to cut the wages of other employees (mainly men) working in services that are also kept in-house. Unison decides to fight the cuts (Ratcliffe -v- North Yorkshire County Council).
1993 The European Court of Justice rules in favour of Pam Enderby, pointing out that, if wages of different bargaining groups cannot be compared, employers can avoid equal pay claims by insisting on having separate groups.
1994 GMB, T&G and Unison sign an historic agreement paving the way for “Single Status” deal in local government.
1995 The House of Lords finds in favour of the dinner ladies protesting against pay cuts and reduced holidays as a result of compulsory competitive tendering. They win £2m in back pay (Ratcliffe -v- North Yorkshire County Council).
Unions and management finally hammer out landmark “Single Status” deal in local government to be implemented by individual local authorities by 31 March 1997.
1997 “Green Book” national agreement signed merging white collar and blue collar pay structure. Moratorium on equal pay claims agreed by GMB, Unison and T&G for 12 months to allow time for councils to undertake job evaluations.
1998 In an out of court settlement, GMB and Unison win £1.5m in back-pay for Bedfordshire dinner ladies.
1999 After years of pressure from unions, a national minimum wage is introduced which up-rates the pay of more than 1.3 million women.
2000 Unions launch “Invest for Change” campaign lobbying the government for additional funding to implement the Single Status agreement.
2001 No win no fee (NWNF) lawyers begin to trawl for clients, charging up to 25 per cent of any compensation won.
2002 GMB and Unison submit equal pay claims on behalf of 2,960 female manual workers (Joss and ors -v- Cumbria County Council). Unions lobby for reform of Equal Pay Act and for ring-fenced funding for public sector equal pay initiatives.
2003 Sex Discrimination Act amended – entitlement to back pay extended to six years. NWNF lawyers submit multiple equal pay clams against Middlesbrough Council.
2004 Unison submits multiple equal pay claims against Newcastle City Council, Sunderland City Council and South Tyneside Council.
Unions sign new pay system in the NHS called Agenda for Change to address pay gap, backed by £920 million of government money.
2005 GMB and Unison negotiate £300 million out of court settlement for more than 1,600 women at two Cumbria hospitals (Wilson -v- North Cumbria NHS Trust).
The Court of Appeal says female ancillary staff working for different NHS trusts after the district health authority was broken up in 1991 did not have “common terms and conditions of employment” even though some of the trusts later amalgamated (Armstrong and ors -v- Newcastle-upon-Tyne NHS Trust).
2006 GMB and Unison win equal pay cases against Cumbria County Council on behalf of 1,700 female manual workers (Joss and ors -v- Cumbria County Council).
Newcastle tribunal decides in favour of claimants represented by NWNF lawyers that the GMB indirectly discriminated against female employees by allegedly placing more attention on pay protection for men than on back pay for women (Allen and ors -v- GMB).
Employment Appeal Tribunal judgement in NWNF case that women in comparable blue and white collar jobs should be paid the same as male refuse collectors who receive productivity bonuses. The decision makes previously understood law on pay protection more confused and therefore more difficult (Bainbridge and ors -v- Redcar & Cleveland BC).
2007 Deadline for introducing Single Status in local councils lapses with only a third of local authorities completing deals, mainly because they do not have the resources to do so.
Unions announce litigation under equal pay legislation against all 22 local authorities in Wales.
Court of Appeal says women employed at community schools can compare their wages with men employed in other parts of the council (Anderson and ors -v- South Tyneside Council).
Employment Appeal Tribunal rules that GMB did not discriminate against their female members, agreeing that the function of unions is to up-rate pay, not agree wage cuts (Allen and ors -v- GMB).
After years of pressure from unions, the government releases £500m to fund back pay at 46 local authorities.
Hourly pay gap for full-time women workers stands at 17.2 per cent.