Nearly 2,000 school dinner ladies employed by the old Cleveland County Council yesterday won more than pounds 1m in lost wages and compensation after the authority admitted to sex discrimination.
Management had insisted on cutting the women's weekly pay by between pounds 5 and pounds 50 in an attempt to beat off private firms who tendered to provide the same service. Male workers in the department were not asked to make these sacrifices.
Leaders of the Unison and GMB unions, who backed the women's cases, said it sent a clear message to councils that they could not "ride roughshod" over previous agreements when government policy forced them into compulsory competitive tendering. Any attempt to reduce costs by targeting vulnerable workers would backfire, union officials said.
The women's cases were taken to an industrial tribunal, but Cleveland, which went out of existence through local government reorganisation earlier this year, admitted that its move constituted discrimination and was in breach of contract.
Now four unitary authorities, which have taken over from the council, will have to pay a total of 1,958 women employed in school meals services across Teesside between pounds 200 and pounds 1,300 each. This includes back pay and compensation to the women for injury to feelings.
Some former Cleveland dinner ladies, however, pointed out that they will end up losing cash. Although their hourly pay was being upgraded they were now working fewer hours. Pat Marron, one of the workers, said she was pounds 11 a week worse off and now had to take another job to compensate.
Stefan Ross, representing the unions, said the award represented a "shot across the bows" to other local authorities considering such a policy.
Eileen Goodenough, of the GMB, said it showed the cost to employers of ignoring workers' rights on compulsory competitive tendering.