THOUSANDS of women have won an historic equal pay case that could potentially cost Scotland’s biggest local authority hundreds of millions of pounds just as austerity bites hardest.

Lawyers for more than 6000 workers have secured a ruling at the country’s highest civil court that Glasgow’s entire salary system may be unfair.

Their landmark victory comes after a 12-year fight against the city, which has been described by unions as “rogue” for grading jobs dominated by men, such as gravediggers, above those largely done by women, such as home carers.

Three judges at the Court of Session, the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian; Lady Paton; and Lord Menzies, quashed an employment tribunal ruling that the grading system met equal pay laws.

Unions and lawyers now hope the council, whose new SNP administration has said it is committed to equal pay, will now negotiate a deal. But - without such an agreement - the ruling means thousands of women can go back to tribunals to seek a wage rise and back pay.

Insiders stress, however, stress that any settlement - whether through individual employment tribunals or negotiation - could have a dramatic effect on city finances.

Stefan Cross QC, whose Action 4 Equality Group, represents 6000 workers in the large and complex action said: “There is now bound to be a huge influx of new cases against the City Council which faces a mammoth bill of £500 million after stubbornly refusing to face up to its equal pay obligations for the past 12 years.”

The case is the second and more significant of two lost by the council over the summer. Back in late May the Court of Session ruled that women workers have been effectively excluded from bonuses widely used by men for years.

The former Labour administrations in Glasgow had thought their re-grading of posts would help them avoid what they saw as a financial blow.

Politicians and officials of that generation have now largely left, to be replaced by city leader Susan Aitken.

The SNP councillor said her administration was elected to improve industrial relations, including settling the equal pay row.

Ms Aitken said: “This is a complex ruling about a complex matter.

“It is right that the Council takes some time to consider the immediate impact and wider ramifications of this ruling.

“Council officers will require time to consider all the implications of this ruling, but I have instructed them to continue to speak to the trade unions about the application of the pay and grading scheme.

“We are actively working with the trade unions to settle all cases relating to pay protection, where a number of women continued to be paid unequally even after the introduction of the new pay and grading system.”

Some of the pay anomalies between male and female workers were stark. Unions argue their female members such as carers, cleaners, catering staff, classroom assistants, clerical workers and so on were typically paid £3 less an hour less than male gardeners, gravediggers or binmen.

That can add up to a shortfall for women of £5000 per year. A final settlement could potentially, therefore, mean workers getting the shortfall for the last decade plus interest.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has backed the equal pay cause after a series of victories for workers over councils.

Labour figures in Glasgow suggested the Scottish Government may have to help local authorities handle big bills with more generous funding arrangements.

Frank McAveety, who Ms Aitken replaced as city leader in May, said: “This judgment has huge financial challenge for the city and a lot of people are going to have to get their heads together, including the government.”