Stefan Cross QC
As a working-class kid who grew up in a council estate with full free school meals, I was very lucky to be able to go to a university to study law. Unfortunately there were no gap years and round the world trip’s for me as I spent every holiday before, during and after university working, usually as a labourer,cleaner or home carer, often with my mum who was also a home carer. There were many life changing events for me at University; including joining the Labour Party and becoming an active trade unionist, studying discrimination law and starting my interest in equal pay law, (last but not least, meeting my wife!).
After qualifying as a solicitor I was lucky enough to join Thompsons ( then called Brian Thompson and partners) in Newcastle. I was able to combine working with undertaking a masters degree in employment law which enabled me to set up a employment law department in Newcastle. After I finished my masters degree I became a Labour councillor between 1990-1998 sitting on both personnel and social services committees. All these experiences meant I knew how the trade unions worked, I knew how the councils worked, I knew what the jobs entailed and a knew the law. All this came in handy when in 1995 a local GMB official , Eileen Goodenough, approached me for advice when Cleveland County Council education committee, chaired by a Nalgo official, decided to save money by cutting the pay of all catering staff in schools but no one else's pay, despite the women being on national terms and conditions. Thus began the Cleveland Dinner ladies dispute. I suggested to Eileen that rather than just simply trying to get the pay reinstated we should fight back and seek more for the women by not only putting in the wages deduction case but also sex discrimination case and claim equal pay based upon my knowledge of the bonus schemes which local authorities were operating primarily to the benefit of male employees. We were supported in this fight by a local branch Nupe official, Stuart Hill, who persuaded his union that if they didn't join the fight they would lose members to the GMB. We won the fight but there were consequences. The council eventually agreed to fully reinstate the women's wages with back pay interest and pay the damages of £1m for sex discrimination. They also agreed to pay over £5 million in backpay for the potentially equal cases and to carry out a review of their wage structure and report in 6 months.
A brilliant result but unfortunately not only were the employers not happy neither were the trade unions. Eileen got removed from her job and replaced by an official who then failed to follow up on the promised review and Stuart got sacked by the council. The unions then signed the national single status agreement in England and Wales, which was subsequently followed in Scotland. This agreement, astonishingly, included a commitment by the trade unions not pursue any more equal pay cases against local councils. This was supposed to last only one year but five years later the councils are not implemented the national agreement and the unions had done nothing about it as the women continued to be paid less than their male colleagues. This included all the councils in Cleveland which had promised to review their pay five years earlier.
I felt that this was an injustice and the only way I could do anything about it was to leave the Thompsons and set up my own firm. I knew that the women would not be able to afford to pay lawyers fees to take claims so I decided to offer to do the cases on the no-win no fee basis. We became the only firm in the country to do all cases on this basis. As Stuart and Eileen had both lost their jobs as a result of the cases I was able to recruit them to work with us and to seek to start mass Equal Pay cases. Starting in Middlesbrough and then Redcar we were eventually able to start equal pay cases in all the councils in the north-east.
But we are only a tiny firm in a small part of England. This was a job that should've been done by the trade unions but they refused to pursue litigation on behalf of their female members. I Felt this was wrong so we sued GMB and UNISON for sex discrimination for failing to properly represent their female members. they fought it all the way up to the Court of Appeal but we won and the courts accepted that the unions had discriminated against their female members. Only after this did the unions start pursuing Equal Pay cases for their members in councils in England and Wales.
Unfortunately the position remind the same Scotland with no cases with superb unions between 1999 and 2005. Stuart introduced me to Mark Irvine who he knew as an ex-unison official and Mark and I have decided to try and pursue the cases in Scotland by setting up action4equality. He started in August 2005 by seeking cases in Glasgow and now in 2017 we are still pursuing cases against Glasgow!
This has been a long hard fight with the councils constantly fighting the cases with numerous firms solicitors and QCs. We have been involved with more than 50 reported appeal cases doing with equal. As a result of this work I was appointed a QC(Hons) in 2013. More importantly we have been involved in successful equal pay cases for over 250,000 women who have received more than £2billion in back pay.
But the fight goes on...
Stefan Cross QC