Schools close and ferries remain idle as SIC staff walk out over pay deal
By RYAN TAYLOR
COUNCIL services ground to a halt on Wednesday when union workers staged their second 24-hour strike in just over a month.
Inter-island ferry services were cancelled and most schools stayed closed for the day when union members walked out in protest over pay.
Members of the public service unions Unite, GMB and Unison are in dispute with employer Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) over a below inflation pay offer of 2.5 per cent for three years.
Organisers said slightly fewer than the 1,200 council workers who walked out on August 20th in protest over the offer took part this time.
Hopes were raised after the last strike that renewed negotiations could lead to a compromise which would avert any further strike action, but talks with Cosla leaders collapsed.
Unison’s Shetland representative Brian Smith said workers were increasingly concerned about the ongoing dispute, but he was sure they would show solidarity for one another.
“I think a lot of people are getting annoyed about this – and not just members of the unions but also the government.
“There is no reason why these employers shouldn’t do what they said they were going to do, and that is speak seriously about pay.
“Everybody heard one of the employers say on the morning of the last strike that they had made a miscalculation about inflation, and there was every reason to go back to the table and speak about something better.
“Inflation is nearly at five per cent. Everybody I’ve spoken to regards it as a ridiculous offer. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t discuss it in a rational way.”
His comments were refuted by a Cosla spokesman, who said jobs and services would only suffer if the pay deal matched the current inflation rate.
“We didn’t ever say we would make another offer, we said we understood what was happening in terms of inflation,” the spokesman said.
“We said inflation was effecting councils in the same way it was effecting council employees. We know inflation surged between March and August, but it effects councils as much as it does individuals.
“We said if there was a situation where they felt there was low pay, we’d be prepared to sit down and examine that, but we wouldn’t do that in the context of pay negotiations.
“Anything over 2.5 per cent will mean the authority having to shed jobs, and services will be affected, so that’s the trade off. That’s not something any local authority is going to be particularly sanguine about.”
The only schools staying open on Wednesday were Skerries, Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, Lunnasting and Sandness. Schools at North Roe and Ueyesound stayed open for pupils until lunchtime.
The Janet Courtney Hostel in Lerwick closed its doors, but travel arrangements were made for isles pupils to take them to the ferry in time, and flights were arranged for Fair Isle pupils.
All ferry services were affected for the 24 hours, although there was an emergency service for blue light services and animal care. The public library in Lerwick remained closed.
Shetland College was unaffected by the strike, as was Train Shetland’s short courses, although its office for vocational courses was closed during the action.
Islesburgh Community Centre and Youth Hostel closed all day to the public, including all children’s groups.
The Town Hall was also closed, as well as public toilets.
The Energy Recovery Plan, Landfill and Civic Amenity site also remained unopened.
Refuse collections were affected, while day care services at the Eric Gray Resource Centre were not on offer.
Day and evening care at Newcraigielea and the skills centre at Annsbrae were also affected, although care centres and Leog remained open.
Despite the disruption, Mr Smith said he was confident the public were in support of the strike.
“I haven’t heard any criticism at all from the general public.
“A large number of Shetlanders are either employed by the local authority, or have relatives employed by the local authority.
“The sole criticism I’ve heard over the last month was by one right wing councillor.
“Even though it’s affecting large numbers of people, Shetlanders are pretty realistic about these things, and they realise striking is the only thing the unions can do to achieve what they are aiming for.
“There are very few people who are willing to go into work to earn a day’s pay while their colleagues are standing outside striking so they will get a better deal in the long term. There is solidarity about this.”
A cluster of council employees gathered outside some of the authority’s main offices on Wednesday morning. A worker at the infrastructure services’ office at Grantfield said it was important to stand for a fairer deal.
“It’s a shame it has come to this, but at the end of the day if we care about people and their wages we have to stand up for what we believe and take a stand.
“We’re not striking for ourselves particularly, but for everybody, particularly low paid workers who are always going to suffer.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott called on negotiations to resume as soon as possible.
“Pay policy is the government’s responsibility. How serious does the situation need to get before ministers get around the negotiating table? These strikes have a direct impact on the services that everyone relies on. Ministers must make sorting out this dispute a priority.”