Just before Christmas 2005, Frances Stojilkovic was offered what sounded like free money. She was working as a carer, providing in-home assistance to elderly and disabled people. The letter she received, along with 11,000 other women working for Glasgow city council, told Stojilkovic she was entitled to compensation resulting from wage disparity between men and women. This was the first time most of the women had heard that they were being paid less than their male counterparts – but what drew the attention of Stojilkovic and her friends was the promise of a cash injection. “It was a carrot dangling before Christmas. Everyone wanted to have something for their kids,” she told me recently.
Stojilkovic is a no-nonsense woman, born and bred in Glasgow. When she got the letter, she was in her early 40s, and had been working as a home carer for about a year. She loved the job, and was conscious of its importance – sometimes she was the only person someone spoke to that day. But it did not pay well. Many of Stojilkovic’s colleagues, especially the single mothers, worked multiple jobs to make ends meet: night shifts cleaning or weekends in retail. She considered herself lucky because she and her husband both had jobs – he worked in restaurants – so they had two incomes. But she still worked a lot of overtime, and weeks would go by when she and her husband saw little of each other. Stojilkovic was excited at the prospect of a payout. Having done the job for a year, she was told, she was entitled to £2,800. “I just thought – £2,800! I’m rich!” she recalled.
The compensation package, negotiated behind the scenes between Glasgow city council and the unions, had strict limits. The maximum amount anyone would receive was £9,000. “At the time, that sounded to me like winning the lottery,” Stojilkovic said. But some of her colleagues who had worked as carers for 10 or 20 years wondered if this sold them short. Stojilkovic remembers that their managers always had the same response: “Yous are being greedy. It’s a lot of money.” The letter told the women that if they didn’t take the money, they had the right to pursue claims through employment tribunals with private lawyers, but warned “you could end up with nothing”.
As instructed by the letter, Stojilkovic made her way to a leisure centre in town where she would receive “independent, impartial legal advice”. In return for the one-off lump sum, the women, who mostly worked in care and education, were required to sign paperwork giving up their right to make further equal pay claims. The leisure centre was hectic, and Stojilkovic queued with two friends who were entitled to the maximum payment. The two women debated whether to sign, wondering if they could get more money if they held out. When they reached the front of the queue, they spoke with council lawyers and union lawyers, who sat side by side and gave the same advice: sign the document and take the money. One of Stojilkovic’s colleagues signed, and got her £9,000 shortly afterwards; the other didn’t and left the leisure centre empty-handed. Instead, she filed a claim with a private law firm called Fox Cross. For Stojilkovic, it was a no-brainer. She signed, got her cash, and went back to day-to-day life. The £2,800 provided a cushion, but it was soon gone.
The payments did not put an end to sex discrimination within the council. In fact, the gulf between women’s and men’s pay was getting bigger. In the years that followed the settlements, Fox Cross (which was later replaced by Action4Equality Scotland) sought out women in Glasgow to inform them that because of this ongoing discrimination, they could have a new claim. The lawyers leafleted, took out ads in papers and called public meetings. In 2007, Stojilkovic attended one of these meetings and put in a claim with Action4Equality Scotland. Thousands of carers and women in other female-dominated roles such as catering made the same decision.
Care work – involving at-home, one-on-one visits – can be lonely. To offset this, Stojilkovic and a few of her colleagues met up regularly between shifts in the cafe in a Morrisons supermarket. In 2008, at one of these gatherings, they heard the news. The woman who hadn’t signed the document at the leisure centre had won her employment tribunal. She had been awarded £27,000: three times the maximum the council had offered.
Her story wasn’t unusual. “In some cases, the settlements were worth 10% of what they were entitled to,” Stefan Cross KC, the founder of Action4Equality Scotland, told me recently. The fact that the women could have been short-changed by the 2005 payout, and that they could put in new claims because of ongoing discrimination, spread through word of mouth.
These conversations signalled the start of a fight that would take almost 20 years, and end with the council paying more than £760m to women who had been systematically underpaid. What happened in Glasgow has changed the way unions and councils around the country treat low-paid female workers. In September 2023, Birmingham city council effectively filed for bankruptcy, in part due to its enormous liability on equal pay. Sheffield city council is facing thousands of equal pay claims from women who were allegedly paid up to £11,000 a year less than men. There are disputes in councils from Coventry to Fife; the GMB alone, one of the main public sector unions, is gathering evidence in 20 different local authorities.
But working out what women are owed, and finding the money to pay them, is far from straightforward. Councils around the country are beset by financial problems stemming from funding cuts imposed by Conservative-led governments since 2010. Central government grants to local councils were cut by 40% in real terms between 2009/10 and 2019/20, at the same time as demand for services like child social care increased. (In 2012, two years into austerity, a graph called the “jaws of doom” did the rounds at councils, one line showing steeply rising demand and another showing crashing funds.) Deprived areas were worst affected, because they received less money from council tax and relied more on this grant funding. The impact of these cuts is visible every day across Britain: in the loss of libraries, swimming pools and children’s centres, in deteriorating conditions in parks and other public spaces, in overwhelmed social care services. After 14 years of this drastically reduced funding, one in five councils now believes it is “fairly or very likely” they will become insolvent in the next 18 months.
All this makes local authorities particularly badly placed to deal with this new wave of equal pay claims. “In my view it’s a matter of if, not when, more councils go bankrupt,” a policy adviser from the Local Government Association told me. “It’s a timebomb – and no one got out ahead of it.” Amid this web of financial challenges, councils are facing up to the uncomfortable truth that for many years, the books have been balanced on the backs of women.
Stojilkovic never imagined she would end up leading a protest movement. She was born Frances Mowat, and grew up in the Gorbals, a deprived area of Glasgow. Her parents split up when she was one, and her mum brought up seven children alone, working long hours as a bus conductor. Stojilkovic hated school and, after leaving at 16 with no qualifications, she got a job at the high court, where she served lunch to the judges and jury. She stayed there for 12 years – during which time she met her husband, Colin Stojilkovic, and had two daughters – before going back to college to study catering. For a few years, she ran a cafe with her sister, and when that shut down, she worked in her brother-in-law’s restaurant, before she fell out with him. (“I told him where to go,” she said.)
Having nursed her father-in-law through dementia, care work felt like a natural step. In 2004, Stojilkovic joined the council’s rapid response team, going to people’s homes to provide care after they had been discharged from hospital. She didn’t think much about her own working conditions, or pay disparities. “We didn’t question stuff like that at the time,” she said. Life was busy, the job was satisfying, and there were bills to pay. “Then, later, you think, ‘Hang on a minute. We’ve got rights.’”
Equal pay is a simple idea, but making it a reality is surprisingly difficult, especially across large, sprawling organisations such as local government. “Men and women essentially don’t do the same work most of the time,” said Hazel Conley, professor of human resource management at the University of the West of England. Caring professions, for instance, are dominated by women, and construction work by men. As a result, the definition of equal pay has expanded to include different jobs that are considered equally valuable within an organisation. To quantify this, employers must do a “job evaluation”, which ranks jobs in terms of importance. But there is no objective way to compare, say, a classroom assistant and a gravedigger. “This is a huge problem at the heart of equal value,” said Conley. “You have to rely on a tool that is ultimately very subjective and open to manoeuvring.”
This is a particularly acute problem for councils, which are responsible for everything from collecting bins and repairing roads to providing social care and schooling. In the mid-1980s, local authorities carried out a national job evaluation scheme, which awarded all manual workers, from carers to refuse collectors, the same basic pay. But local authorities failed to address the many added perks for male-dominated jobs, such as bonuses and generous allowances for overtime. “Each local authority developed its own way of enhancing the pay of the men – and they were very creative in the way they did it,” said Cross. Glasgow had more than 120 bonus schemes for its employees, and every single one benefited jobs dominated by men. Often these schemes were the direct result of trade unions, which are traditionally male-dominated, lobbying hard for particular groups of employees.
The following decade, a further assessment of council jobs across Britain, including all the bonuses and perks that benefited male-dominated jobs, revealed that sex discrimination was endemic. The unions agreed to give the councils a year to address the situation before taking any action. The year passed, and Cross – who was working as a trade union lawyer – saw that the unions were still not pursuing cases. “I’d had enough,” he told me. He left his job as a partner at one of the biggest trade union law firms, and set up his own firm to pursue equal pay litigation. Trade unions are proprietorial, competing with one another and suspicious of outsiders, and many trade union lawyers and organisers felt he was stepping on their toes.
Even today, Cross is a divisive figure; when we spoke, he immediately, almost proudly, said he’d been described in the press as “the most hated lawyer in Britain”. I spoke to several people within the trade union movement who referred disparagingly to “no-win, no-fee lawyers”, while others commented on how personally wealthy Cross has become from his work on equal pay. Yet numerous women represented by Action4Equality Scotland spoke highly of Cross and his colleagues, and it is clear that he is passionate about the cause.
Cross’s new firm started litigating around the UK, not just in Scotland, starting with the north-east of England. It won some early victories. Many councils opted to settle, rather than fighting lengthy court battles. Cross hired a few other disillusioned ex-trade union lawyers and organisers, and his firm filed its first Birmingham case and their first Glasgow case in the same month, June 2005. Not long after that, Stojilkovic and the other women got the letter calling them into the leisure centre. Something very similar happened in Birmingham. “A lot of councils did something like this, where employees were expected to sign away their rights,” said Paul Savage, who worked for Cross’s firm in Birmingham. “Women were often told: ‘Don’t be greedy, take it or you’ll lose your job.’ And the unions sat with the bosses, encouraging women to sign.”
Things got even worse for female employees in 2009, when Glasgow city council transferred the employment of carers away from the council itself, to a company called Cordia. Almost every other female-dominated job at the council was similarly outsourced. “It’s our belief that they did that thinking that if they outsourced the women, they wouldn’t be able to compare themselves back to the men who were still in-house,” said Rhea Wolfson, head of internal and industrial relations at GMB, one of the UK’s biggest unions. The employment terms of the women working for Cordia were protected for three years, but after that the workload increased and employees no longer earned double pay for weekend shifts. Once again, the gulf between the working conditions of male-dominated and female-dominated careers widened.
There are two ways for employees to fight unequal pay. One is collective bargaining, when unions use their leverage to negotiate on behalf of a particular group. That wasn’t happening; unions weren’t doing much to lobby for women or even inform them they might have a claim. The other is for individuals to file legal claims and pursue personal compensation through tribunals. In Glasgow, a series of complicated points of law had to be decided before individual claims could even be heard, which meant that as far as the women who had filed claims in 2007 were concerned, nothing much was happening.
In 2012, Birmingham city council lost an equal pay hearing at the supreme court, and ended up paying out an astonishing £1.1bn to female workers. In Glasgow, even in the wake of this historic ruling, progress was slow. But that was about to change.
By 2014, it had been seven years since Stojilkovic put her claim in with Action4Equality Scotland, and she had heard little about it. During those years, the women in her area continued to meet in Morrisons between shifts. On one of these tea breaks, someone told Stojilkovic that her husband worked as a cleansing worker, a council job that had historically been paid the same as the carers. He was now getting £9 an hour, while they only got £6 – and he still had all his overtime payments, bonuses and other enhancements. “It was a massive shock,” Stojilkovic said. It threw into relief what equal pay actually meant. She thought of what a difference an extra £3 an hour would make. “We had to work every hour, just to make ends meet. If you had a proper wage, you could spend more time with your family, or take care of yourself. We were just working constantly. It wasn’t right.”
This conversation renewed Stojilkovic’s interest in equal pay. She started sending emails to councillors to demand answers about the disparities. They ignored her messages or sent dismissive, vague responses, and she grew angrier. “They thought we’re just low-paid workers, and we don’t mean anything,” she told me. As she told me about this, Stojilkovic grabbed her phone and read out an email from Frank McAveety, the Labour leader of the council between 2015 and 2017: “A number of colleagues have written in about equal pay and have been asking when the council will settle. In fact, the council settled equal pay in 2006.” She shook her head. “It’s a load of shite.” (McAveety did not respond to a request for interview.)
In 2016, after a couple of years of trying and failing to get responses, Stojilkovic’s daughter helped her set up a Facebook page to spread the word about equal pay and let women know they should file a claim. “I was fed up waiting,” Stojilkovic said. At first, there were about 30 carers in Stojilkovic’s Facebook group, all of whom she knew personally. Then others started joining – not just carers but caterers, teaching assistants, cleaners. Mark Irvine, an Action4Equality Scotland lawyer, got in touch with Stojilkovic and started giving her regular updates on the legal fight, which she in turn posted to the group. The equal pay claims were inching their way through the employment tribunal system. There were setbacks and wins for each side over the years, and the council was fighting back hard. “To be perfectly honest, there was a degree of fear,” one Glasgow council officer told me. “There was a sense that we’d probably end up having to settle some of the claims, but certainly not all of them, if we kept fighting it.”
By this time, Stojilkovic was working as a care coordinator, managing carers and covering if someone was off sick. Her shifts were intense, so she managed the Facebook group at night and the weekend, responding to requests for advice. “I was just on it constant,” Stojilkovic said. This was hard on her family. “She never complained, but I worried about her health,” said her husband, Colin. “You don’t want to be selfish, but you feel you’re being left aside. I know she had me in her heart. But equal pay was 99% of her life, and mine as well.” Colin thought of how accepting Stojilkovic had been of his unsociable work hours in the restaurant industry, and knew he wanted to “support her 100%”. Both of their daughters worked in care, too, but, Stojilkovic said, got “sick of hearing about equal pay”. Her grandchildren didn’t know another version of her. “She was always on her phone, always going to meetings,” said her granddaughter Toni Smith, now aged 18.
In late 2016, Stojilkovic decided it was time to take to the streets. She posted to tell women to gather on George Square, near the city chambers. “I knew my wee pals would turn up, even if no one else did,” she said. But when she got there, she was amazed at the turnout. The women stood outside the town hall and shouted “Where’s my money?” at the councillors coming in and out. It was thrilling. They started protesting every other week.
The unions had been reluctant to fight for equal pay, but gradually the strength of feeling was impossible to ignore: GMB, Unison and Unite joined protests and started informing their members about the issue. “The campaign Frances ran in Glasgow made the unions take equal pay seriously,” Wolfson, the GMB head of internal and industrial relations, told me.
In 2016, as Stojilkovic’s Facebook group and protests took off, the SNP was gaining ground in local polls ahead of an election for Glasgow city council the following year. Equal pay was a major issue, and the SNP’s leaders tried to get to grips with it. “There was a genuine fear of what the consequences would be financially,” Susan Aitken, the SNP leader of the council since 2017, told me. “But it seemed to me that the longer we let it go on, the worse those consequences would be.” The council fighting back – what Cross called “litigation poker” – was dramatically increasing the amount of money it could owe if it lost. (In an employment tribunal in Scotland, an employee can claim for up to five years of back pay, but they can also claim for the duration of the legal process.) Aitken made it a manifesto commitment that if the SNP won the leadership of Glasgow city council, it would stop fighting in court and negotiate a settlement. Both Aitken and first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, met with Stojilkovic – a sign of how quickly her equal pay campaign had progressed.
In spring 2017, the SNP won enough seats to form a minority administration in Glasgow. Aitken became the council mayor. But changing direction on equal pay after more than a decade wasn’t easy. Council staff had been working on this issue for years, and some chafed at the new approach, preferring to keep litigating and fighting off any claims.
While Aitken worked to get council colleagues onside, the court of session, Scotland’s highest court, returned two key verdicts, referred to within the council as “the wee case” and “the big case”. In May 2017, it ruled that the bonuses that had been the norm in male-dominated jobs were discriminatory and that women were entitled to compensation. This was “the wee case”, and the council accepted the finding. In August, the court of session ruled that Glasgow city council had failed to prove that its job evaluation scheme was fair. This was “the big case”, because it involved all 30,000 people employed by the council. In January 2018, the council voted to abandon litigation and pursue a settlement with people working female-dominated roles.
Soon after, negotiations began to determine what this settlement would look like. The atmosphere was extremely tense. Given the scale of the dispute, Aitken thought it was inevitable that the process would be slow, but the Action4Equality Scotland lawyers were frustrated by the lack of progress. Irvine, the lawyer, wrote on his blog that the talks were a “complete sham”.
Women who were still waiting for their compensation had started dying. Elaine Russell, a home care coordinator who worked all hours to support her family, died when she was just 55. Margaret Gorman, who spent 16 years as a home carer, died at 60. Maureen McDonald, a council catering manager for 13 years, died at 56. “They were overworked, their bodies didn’t get a chance to recuperate,” Stojilkovic said. “They were all dying, and they’ve not had their money.” Many women felt they were being fobbed off yet again as the council fell behind on the timetable for negotiations. “It was really pissing me off,” said Stojilkovic. On the Facebook group, frustration was boiling over. Shona Thomson, who was an active member of the group, was also a GMB branch secretary. She and Stojilkovic started lobbying their respective unions for a strike.
On 21 October 2018, 8,000 women employed by Glasgow city council – classroom assistants, carers, caterers – went on strike for two days. The picket lines started at midnight, women bearing placards that read: “I care for your parents. I clean your school. I feed your kids. Women make Glasgow”. Stojilkovic was flying to Tenerife in the afternoon for her annual holiday. She had booked it months before the strike was confirmed, and hadn’t been able to move the flights. (She even told her husband that she didn’t want to go. “I says to her, ‘Are you joking?’” he recalled.) She stayed up all night, showing journalists around, rushing around different sites. Her phone didn’t stop ringing all day. “We were just pure buzzing,” she told me. In the early afternoon, she picked up her suitcases and went straight to the airport, unslept and with her strike T-shirt still on.
Thomson was also up at midnight, going between picket lines. She joined a big parade through the city centre, and stood on stage to address the crowd. “It was the proudest moment of my life,” she told me. “I’d always been treated unfairly by men, but standing up there I realised this fight made me stronger as a person.” They held a minute’s silence for the women who had died. When Stojilkovic told me about the strike day, sitting in her living room with her dogs yapping around her feet, her whole face lit up. “The strike gave us our power back,” she said. “All these years they treated us like we were just daft lasses, talking nonsense, only good for wiping bums. But we had a voice.”
It was believed to be the UK’s biggest ever strike over equal pay, and the disruption was enormous. Schools and nurseries closed, and home-care services were largely suspended. Many refuse workers – overwhelmingly men – did not cross the picket line, forgoing two days of pay.
While Aitken and others at the council maintain that the strike had no bearing on the settlement, it is clear that afterwards talks moved more quickly. In January 2019, a settlement was reached. The council would pay a total of £550m to about 15,000 female employees and undertake an entirely new job evaluation, reassessing which roles within the council were comparable. Glasgow city council funded the compensation through a complicated financial arrangement that included selling off some council-owned buildings and leasing them back. In 2019, 11 buildings – mostly sports and leisure centres – were sold off in this way. In meetings with council officials, Thomson and Stojilkovic sometimes felt that the women were being blamed for the council’s financial difficulties. “It’s our money that should have been in our purses, and they kept it in their purses,” Thomson said. “They should have treated us with respect, and this would never have happened.”
In May 2019, soon after the settlement was reached, a bench was installed, facing the council’s City Chambers, a grand Victorian building that runs along one side of George Square. Stojilkovic had crowdfunded for it: she wanted it to be seen by the councillors and officials who still work here every day. On a cold autumn day, with rain sheeting down, I found it, and wiped away the rain to read the plaque: “In loving memory of the 163 Glasgow claimants who passed away during the long fight for equal pay with Glasgow city council.”
Over the course of 2019, Stojilkovic, Thomson and thousands of other women got their money. Under the terms of the settlement, they are not allowed to speak about how much they were awarded. But, after 13 long years, it was a victory. “The day we all got our letters I think it was the first time in my life I couldn’t even speak,” said Yvonne Crawford, a care coordinator who campaigned with Stojilkovic. “It was such an overwhelming delight.”
Stojilkovic was inundated with messages from women telling her how their lives had changed. “We can do stuff other families do … go out for meals, take an unexpected weekend away. I can get my boys the trainers they want without having to save up and get them one at a time,” one woman wrote on the Facebook group. Another posted: “I am now totally debt-free first time in over 25 years and I am taking my family off to Mexico in a few weeks, which is a dream come true for us.” Others paid off mortgages or bought cars. One woman used it to pay for a gravestone for her son, who had been murdered. Many of them thanked Stojilkovic for all her efforts. Stojillkovic told them: “That’s your money that you worked for.” She gave some of the money from her settlement to her kids, and renovated her home. Soon after the settlement came through, she started to work full-time for the GMB as an equalities rep.
Stojilkovic’s campaign in Glasgow changed how the big trade unions treated equal pay. The GMB took up the cause with particular enthusiasm, training staff around the country to spot discrimination and bring claims. In 2021, a Birmingham-based GMB officer called Michelle McCrossen – who had been to one of these training sessions – sounded the alarm. Birmingham city council was asking unions to sign a document that encouraged employees to give up their right to an equal pay claim in return for as little as a few hundred pounds. “Councils don’t generally hand out free money, so we were concerned,” Wolfson said.
Although Birmingham city council had paid out £1.1bn to female workers in 2012, it had not adequately addressed the underlying problems, and some of the worst practices were reinstated during the pandemic. “When we looked into what the male comparators were earning, it was beyond the pale,” said Paul Savage, the Action4Equality lawyer in Birmingham. “For instance, refuse workers only had to work four days a week, and if they worked on a Friday, it was classed as overtime. None of those terms and conditions were available to women.” The GMB offered to represent its members in equal pay cases, and about 3,000 of them filed claims. This proactive approach from the union was a huge change from previous years. “Birmingham wouldn’t have happened without Glasgow,” said Wolfson.
In Birmingham, things unravelled quickly. In September 2023, the council effectively announced bankruptcy. It had estimated that it could owe up to £760m in equal pay claims. While local authorities can’t go bankrupt in the same way that a business can, this has a serious impact: the council will halt all spending other than services that it must provide by law, like social care and waste collection. This can mean closures of libraries or leisure centres, cuts to local arts organisations or sports clubs, and so on. Equal pay wasn’t the only problem – the council also spent about £100m on an IT system that didn’t work, and, most importantly, like every council in England, had its funding from central government cut by more than a third since 2010 – but it was a major contributing factor to its financial collapse.
It is an uncomfortable reality that if councils go bankrupt, the people who lose out the most are its own low-paid workers – many of whom are women – as well as poor people dependent on their services. But the responsibility for this cannot fall on the shoulders of female council workers. “Can we really have a welfare state that only survives if it pays its women unequally and unlawfully?” said Conley, the professor of human resources management.
Birmingham is a cautionary tale for what can happen if councils pay out without making meaningful change. “Equal pay is a living and breathing thing,” said Wolfson. “If we don’t maintain it, we lose it.” Almost five years after the settlement, women in Glasgow are – somewhat incredibly – still being paid less than their male counterparts. A new job evaluation was delayed by the pandemic and is yet to be completed. In 2022, several more buildings, including the iconic Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the City Chambers – the main council building – were sold off to fund a second set of payments. The total paid out so far is around £760m, and the council will spend around £30m every year on leasing the buildings back. While the council is not making people redundant, it is looking at ways to reduce the workforce, such as not rehiring when people retire or leave. “It’s a sad irony that the consequence of us compensating for discrimination is that we’ll ultimately employ fewer people,” Aitken said.
Many other local authorities will face serious equal pay claims in the coming years. The GMB is collecting evidence in 20 areas, and has already filed hundreds of claims in Cumbria, Dundee and Coventry. Given the financial catastrophe unfolding at many councils after years of cuts, “there is no alternative” to central government stepping in to settle the bills, said Wolfson.
People I spoke to at councils around the country feel beleaguered; under intense budgetary pressure after years of slashed funding, and now pursued through the courts by the very same unions who are partially responsible for discriminatory pay arrangements. Not only did unions sign off on earlier job evaluation schemes, but some of the worst disparities came about as a result of union pressure that prioritised men over women. “Obviously they’re meant to go hell for leather on getting the best possible deal in every dispute,” said one London-based council officer. “But this is the public purse, and getting insanely preferential deals for refuse workers, which then means home carers are discriminated against, opens the door to public sector layoffs. So where does your socialism start and finish?”
In Glasgow, Stojilkovic is frustrated that pay inequality hasn’t been addressed. “We’re still being cheated,” she said. But, now in her 60s, she feels changed by her experience leading the campaign. “When you’re younger, you don’t realise you can fight for better things. But now I know, if you can get united, it’s the most powerful thing ever.”
Stojilkovic’s granddaughter Toni Smith was born soon after Stojilkovic received the 2005 payout. The fight for equal pay has lasted her entire life. It is only in the past few years that Smith has started to understand why her grandmother was always so stressed and busy for all those years. “It gives me a wee spring in my step whenever I go on social media and see something about my nana and everything she’s fought for,” she told me. “I’m like – I want to be like that one day.”