In this section EqualPayPortal looks at some of the initiatives being taken by trade unions to reduce the gender pay gap. The links featured here are selective, and therefore understate the amount of action being taken by unions.

While one would expect collective bargaining to be the main mechanism by which unions aim to reduce the gender pay gap, the individualistic nature of equal pay legislation in the UK and the absence in the UK legislative framework of a defined role for collective bargaining means that there is no incentive for employers to act jointly with unions to reduce gender pay inequalities.  Various commentators have suggested that this lack of a defined role for unions partly explains the UK having a larger pay gap than many other European states, and certainly the gender pay gap is lowest in countries where overall equality is higher and where collective bargaining coverage is high. However, as the links below show, even without a supportive legislative framework, unions can make significant progress at sectoral and workplace level.

An overview

An essential overview of union involvement in equal pay is to be found on the website Winning Equal Pay, a partnership initiative between London Metropolitan University and the Trades Union Congress to record the long campaign to achieve equal pay for women. The site features an impressive archive of material, including a series of films about the fight for equal pay, learning narratives written by equal pay experts, and a selection of historic posters and documents. Both the short and long versions of all the films shown on the website, plus a longer film on the history of the fight for equal pay – The Equal Pay Story: scenes from a turbulent history – are available on DVD from TUC Publications.

Entering ‘unions and equal pay’ or ‘unions and the gender pay gap’ into the University of Warwick’s search engine leads to a useful selection of research papers.

An account of the extent and variety of possible union initiatives can be found in Bargaining for Equality, a report by Dr Jane Pillinger documenting a survey carried out for the European Trade Union Confederation in 2013 as part of the ETUC’s ‘Bargaining for Equality’ project. The report gives an overview of collective bargaining trends and their impact on gender pay inequalities, along with examples of different approaches taken to address the issue in negotiations, as well as of examples of specific initiatives taken under legislation requiring the social partners to negotiate to reduce pay inequalities between women and men.

‘Bargaining for Equality’ has also published a toolkit on actions to promote gender equality; the Framework of Actions on Gender Equality includes a chapter on how unions and employers can tackle the gender pay gap through collective bargaining.

The range of union initiatives

In Britain the range of union initiatives aimed at reducing the gender pay gap includes research into the gender pay gap; model agreements on equal pay; negotiating for improved pay transparency; sourcing gender disaggregated data; running training courses for negotiators and union reps; and promoting good equal pay practices such as equal pay audits and gender neutral job evaluation schemes.

In the public sector unions have been active in pursuing pay equality through the Public Sector Equality Duty.  For more on the Public Sector Equality Duty across England, Scotland and Wales, go to Government.

Unions are also in the forefront of action to obtain equal pay through equal pay claims, especially in the public sector, and, looking at pay more broadly, unions are currently running a number of campaigns to combat low pay and wider earnings inequalities. As it is widely documented that women predominate at the lower end of the earnings distribution and men at the higher end, measures to combat low pay and to reduce overall earnings inequalities will help to narrow the gender pay gap.

Collective bargaining

National sectoral level bargaining, as for example, in the NHS or Local Government, has been important in setting an agenda aimed at reducing the gender pay gap, but company level bargaining is also effective, especially where the objective is to encourage good equal pay practice such as workplace equal pay audits and improving pay transparency.

Successful bargaining for pay equality is most often publicised in the form of a press release or on the member only section of union websites, but Prospect’s on-line library contains details of Prospect’s success in obtaining equal pay from the employers it negotiates with. These brief reports include an outline of the outcome of the negotiations.

Some unions, such as BECTU, lead on their commitment to equal pay. BECTU always negotiates to get women’s pay in line with men’s pay, and workplaces where BECTU is recognised are 20 per cent more likely to have equal opportunities policies. The FDA’s pay agenda specifically targets pay equality. The PCS has issued a Women’s Equality Toolkit which sets out the union’s policy on equal pay. The policy is comprehensive, and includes items such as wanting employers to be required to carry out equal pay audits, and organising a postcard campaign to call for equal pay legislation to be strengthened.

Several unions, especially those organising in the public sector, provide their reps with guidance on negotiating for pay equality. The CSP’s Negotiating Guidance on Equality Impact (Pay Progression)Assessments is relevant to equal pay, as is the Communication Workers Union’s Guide to Equality Proofing which, while not specifically mentioning pay, provides a structured approach to equality issues, including how the bargaining process can put part-time workers at a disadvantage in ways that could lead to them missing out on pay rises.

Unions have a key role to play in securing gender neutral job evaluation and in ensuring equality impact assessments of any changes to an existing job evaluation scheme. Where guidance to negotiators is issued it may be in the form of a document jointly agreed between the employer and the union or unions.  Examples of union guidance include Unison’s Branch Negotiating Guide, and of jointly agreed guidance, the Joint Agreement on guidelines for the development and implementation of a Job Evaluation Scheme in Further Education Colleges. The UCU has supplemented this with its own guidance on Role Analysis and Job Evaluation. As with unions and equal pay generally, keying in ‘unions and job evaluation guidance’ will produce a range of examples.

On collective bargaining per se a good example of an ambitious yet realistic agenda is that produced by the Higher Education Trades Unions (UCU, UNISON, Unite, EIS, GMB) in their Joint Higher Education Trade Union Pay Equality Claim 2015/16. The preamble states that, in addition to pay, as part of the national negotiations over recent years the trade unions have expressed a desire for the employer’s national representatives to address a number of serious issues relating to inequality in the sector including closing the gender pay gap. These matters remain of central importance to the trade unions’ equality agendas and they form part of this year’s claim.

The trade unions believe that the equality elements in this claim should be progressed by a combination of jointly agreed national measures and through active policy intervention and enforcement agreed with the unions.  Provisions specific to the gender pay gap are:

  • To further develop some of the gender pay issues that emerged out of the work of the New JNCHES working group and the employers to undertake positive UK wide action to address the continuing gender pay gap in higher education.
  • Joint work leading to national guidance based on the New JNCHES gender pay gap working group research targeted at gender pay differentials for professors and senior staff above spine point 51, to provide greater transparency of pay and criteria for pay progression.
  • Mandatory biennial equal pay audits (by gender, race and disability) in all HEIs.

Other provisions, such as seeking enhanced training and development opportunities for hourly-paid staff, would also help to narrow the gender pay gap.

The Higher Education Unions, jointly with the employer body, the UCEA, have published a New JNCHES Gender Pay Working Group Report, which presents quantitative and qualitative (i.e. case study) information on the situation within the Higher education Sector. The report is the most thorough of its kind

Research into the gender pay gap

The TUC regularly publishes commentaries on national statistical databases, like the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, which highlight specific aspects of the gender pay gap. They include:  the pay gap for part-time workers , older womenyoung women with vocational qualifications earning less than men, and fathers working full-time earning 21 per cent than men without children.

Where, as in the higher education sector, unions are working jointly with employers on equality issues, research may be jointly produced, as for example in the 2011 New JNCHES Equality Working Group Overview Report, which presents the findings of an equal pay survey and a literature review.

Model agreements on equal pay

The ATL and UCU websites provide a link to a joint agreement between the further education unions which supports the principle that female and male staff should receive equal pay for the same or broadly similar work, for work rated as equivalent, or for work of equal value. Although dating back to 2005 and referring to guidance from the Equal Opportunities Commission, the agreement sets out the key elements of a joint union and employer approach to the implementation of equal pay which still holds good.

The UNITE Pay Up campaign Equal Pay Pack includes an action plan and model agreement on equal pay. Some model agreements negotiated with unions, especially in the public sector, are published on employer websites, an example being the agreement between Unison and Derbyshire Constabulary.

Improving pay transparency

In legal terms transparency means that pay and benefit systems should be capable of being understood by everyone (employers, workers and their trade unions),and that it should be clear to individuals how each element of their pay contributes to their total earnings in a pay period.

In the context of the gender pay gap more generally, transparency also has a wider meaning, namely the existence of gender disaggregated pay information, whether – as in the publication of the outcomes of an equal pay audit – such data is made publicly available, or whether its release is restricted to interested parties, such as unions, employees, or shareholders.

The lack of transparency in pay systems has been identified as one of the key factors contributing to the gender pay gap. The absence of objective and disaggregated workplace and sectoral data on pay gaps not only makes it difficult for individual women to know how their pay compares with that of male colleagues, it also seriously hinders unions in bargaining to reduce gender pay differences. Pay transparency is essential in enabling unions to identify if there is a gender pay gap and in informing the content and scope of pay negotiations and collective agreements. Moreover, there is evidence that the quality of data improves when discussed and analysed jointly between employers and unions. However, in contrast to countries such as Austria and France, unions in the UK have no legal right to such data.

Sourcing gender disaggregated data

Disclosure of Information for Collective Bargaining Purposes; Freedom of Information

Despite the absence in UK legislation of rights for unions to have automatic access to gender disaggregated workplace data, unions have made good use other measures, such as section 181 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (TULRA), or (for public sector employers) the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to obtain information relevant to equal pay and the gender pay gap, most often in relation to job evaluation.

Section 181 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 places an employer under a general duty to provide unions with information relevant to collective bargaining purposes, and this can be used to get information relevant to equal pay. Acas have produced a code of practice on disclosure.

UCU, the University and College Union have produced a guidance note on Disclosure of Job Evaluation Data for branches faced with a refusal by an employer to disclose requested data. This suggests both Section 181 of TULRA and the FOIA as possible routes to obtaining information.

As public bodies have to publish their responses to Freedom of Information Act requests requests, keying ‘FOIA and job evaluation‘, or ‘FOIA and equal pay‘ into a search engine will produce a list of responses, each of which will show what information has been requested and what released.

Union-generated data

A union may choose to survey its own members for information on their pay. Such salary surveys are usually published in the member-only area of a union’s website, but an idea of their approach can often be found on the page which introduces the survey. An example is the PCS at HP Survey 2013

One union which does publish its survey forms is the ATL, which uses surveys to gather members’ opinions and to help inform ATL’s policies and negotiations. Its pay and conditions surveys could usefully be adapted to elicit information on equal pay and the gender pay gap.

The UCATT 2014 Women in Construction Survey found that women receive lower pay than men working in the industry, and the union is developing a Women’s Charter which will include a commitment to campaign for equal pay and to reduce the gender pay gap.

Combining data sources

All of the sources of data on men’s and women’s pay referred to above can be used to complement each other, thereby enabling a union to promote its objectives of better pay and conditions for all its members. An example is the NUT, which Bargaining for Equality’ describes as making use of various sources of data, including union surveys of members, official national data sources and independent surveys and reports.

Training courses for reps

Union Learn, the training arm of the TUC, runs a training course for union reps on equal pay.  The course is designed to help reps understand how the pay gap occurs; know what the law says about equal pay; understand what pay reviews are and why they are necessary; and gain the skills to work in partnership with employers to carry these out.

Individual unions, especially the larger unions, may provide their own training. Unions whose members’ jobs are job-evaluated tend to prioritise the development of tools and guidelines on gender-neutral criteria for job evaluation. In Scotland, such training may be provided through the Close the Gap campaign, as is the case with the  Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS), which provides links to this Scottish partnership project that works to encourage and enable action to address the gender pay gap.

Training may also be provided jointly with employers, with union reps and managers learning about equal pay and the gender pay gap at the same time, an initiative which not only gives participants an understanding of equal pay issues, but also gives an insight into the views of the other party to negotiations. This is the approach favoured by UNITE.

The TSSA provides a Pay & Gradings Systems course to find out more about pay systems and what can be done to address the issues in the workplace.

Promoting good equal pay practice

Unions are active in promoting good equal pay practice, and in particular, pressing for equal pay audits to be carried out.

Close the Gap produces a range of guides for union reps, including one on Conducting an Equal Pay Review. The PCS has issued a Women’s Equality Toolkit which sets out the union’s policy on equal pay. The policy is comprehensive, and includes items such as wanting employers to be required to carry out equal pay audits, and organising a postcard campaign to call for equal pay legislation to be strengthened.

The NASUWT issue a wide range of policy statements and guidance on pay issues generally, most of which take equal pay considerations into account. These include how to equality proof a school’s pay policy, and a Performance Management and Pay Policy Audit Tool. UNITE’s Equality Reps’ toolkit contains PAY UP! A guide to fair pay and equality audits. The toolkit also contains guidance on job evaluation and performance related pay.

Public Sector Equality Duty

The UCU has produced an Equality Toolkit on the Equality Act 2010 which covers the equal pay provisions.

The UCU website also provides a link to the 2012 Joint Agreement on Guidance on Equality in Employment in Further Education Colleges which suggests that pay levels and equal pay audits might form part of the information helpful in meeting the Public Sector Equality Duty.

The TUC publishes an Equality Duty Toolkit, which includes a checklist for trade unions. The equality impact assessment guidance given in this and other union publications, while specifically aimed at the public sector, is also useful to unions in the private sector, for the principles of assessing the impact of employment policies and practice are the same irrespective of the sector to which they are applied.

Campaigning for pay equality

A number of unions, including the RCN, the TSSA, and UNISON,    have mounted Fair Pay Campaigns to achieve fair pay and conditions for their members.  UNISON is running two campaigns: Worth It, calling for better and fairer pay, and A Living Wage, calling for people to be paid enough to live decently and to adequately provide for their family.


Last updated 2nd May 2016