Thursday was an historic day for pay equity.

It was the first time the union movement has been so unified behind the actions of a National Government.

And it was the first time a National Government has given the union movement just cause to celebrate.

The unions should celebrate for the potential gains of low paid workers.


They can also celebrate for themselves because it is evident that unions are in revival.

The announcement at 10.35am that the Government has accepted the principles and process by which pay equity claims can be heard sparked an avalanche of positive statements from unions.

They weren't back-handed compliments either, like Labour's that went something like: congratulations, National, you've finally come around to our way of thinking.

There was no gloating from the unions. The sentiments were sincere and reflected the magnitude of the decision for women.

Future pay equity cases have a chance to materially improve the lives of low-paid women by hundreds of millions of dollars, cumulatively.

For aged care workers, that settlement could come as a huge Christmas present.

Women whose work has been historically underpaid and undervalued because it is "just women's work" will now have the chance to have the gap closed.

And if workers and bosses can't agree, the case can go to court for a binding ruling, a return in part to the days of arbitration of yester-year.


The former Clerical Workers' Union in the 1980s was at the vanguard of the pay equity movement. The torch bearers since then have been women's groups dedicated to the cause for decades, other feminists and pockets of women in unions.

But the undercover work of former Human Rights Commissioner Judy McGregor in a rest home in 2012 was the catalyst for the court case behind this week's decision.

It inspired the Service Workers' Union (now amalgamated with the Engineers into E Tu) to take a case on behalf of aged care worker Kristine Bartlett which was unsuccessfully challenged every step of the way right to the Supreme Court.

The case brought together a dedicated union official in John Ryall, a very smart lawyer and former union official in Peter Cranney and a deserving test case in Bartlett.

In the wake of the legal win, E Tu union is now negotiating with the Government, which funds the privately employed aged care workers.

The settlement promises to be one of the biggest wage increases in recent times for Bartlett and 50,000 mainly women in the sector.

Other pay equity claims will follow the new process once it is passed into law - it will be introduced before the election but passed after it.

The pay equity outcome is one of the reasons unions are experiencing a revival.

It follows other major successes by the former Service Worker's Union through the courts.

They include the "sleepover" case in which disability support workers who were required to give 24-hour care in residential centres were paid less than the minimum wage for sleeping over.

It also includes a victory for low-paid women working as home and community support workers who had to drive between many clients in a day but were not paid for that time.

In each of the three cases, the workers were mostly employed by private agencies but their wages were sourced from Government funding.

The combination of those three stunning victories by that union have cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions but the money has gone to low-paid workers.

That tangible success and the highly effective campaign for greater health and safety standards in the workplace, not to mention the public affection in which the late Helen Kelly was held, have combined to lift the standing of unions.

It is not surprising, then, that E Tu, the PSA and Nurses between them have had a 20 per cent increase in membership in two years.

The unions played an important role in the tripartite Working Group (union, employers and Government officials) that came up with the pay-equity principles after the Bartlett win. It has been an exemplary process.

So why did National, the party of employers, agree to pay equity?

Partly because the alternatives were less palatable.

Letting the courts determine the final law on such an important issue would have been an abrogation of a Government's responsibility.

Legislating to override Bartlett's moral victory would have looked immoral.

The Government has surpluses to spend and, in line with its experience last year in raising social welfare benefits, National likes traipsing over areas traditionally considered Labour's patch.

And the ministers making the pay equity decision are not in the same ideological mold as Bill Birch and Ruth Richardson - MPs who were averse to state intervention and promptly repealed the Employment Equity Act, which had been passed in the dying days of the Fourth Labour Government.

Paula Bennett has actually worked as a full-time worker in a rest home. John Key's mother supplemented her widow's benefit as a cleaner.

Bill English, the compassionate conservative, has social justice credentials as strong as his fiscal credentials.

They are not the breed of National "born to rule pricks" that Michael Cullen loved to hate.

There is a chance that the move will give women false hope that they will get a pay rise, as long as they are doing women's work which is undervalued.

The legislation has not yet been unveiled but it is guaranteed not to be that simple.

The potential losers are private sector employers who could be faced with a financially devastating pay-equity judgment against them.

But in such cases, employees and unions are likely to be realistic about a pay increase if the alternative is no job at all.

On the other hand, such employers may find that the best way to avoid a pay-equity blow is to show how much they value their low-paid women employees by steadily lifting their wages.