By RYAN TAYLOR
HOPES of a breakthrough in the council pay dispute rose after an estimated 1,200 workers staged a 24 hour strike on Wednesday.
Union leaders were invited round the negotiating table to help thrash out a deal after they rejected a below-inflation annual wage increase of 2.5 per cent for each of the next three years.
The news will come as a ray of hope for council staff, who say the deal would effectively mean a pay cut in the face of rising inflation.
As the day’s action began, small crowds of picketers gathered round Lerwick’s council offices to protest.
“For some of our members it’s going to cause considerable hardship for the three year period,” said a Unison member outside the council’s education offices at Hayfield House.
“What we’re being offered isn’t even allowing us to maintain a decent standard of living. A lot of people from other unions have been supporting us.”
The SIC’s education service was one of the worst affected by the strike.
Most schools stayed closed on Wednesday, giving pupils an unscheduled extra day’s holiday before starting the new term.
The only schools to remain open were Skerries, Burravoe Primary, Fair Isle, Fetlar and Foula as well as Lunnasting and Sandness.
Uyesound Primary opened until lunchtime, although it too closed in the afternoon.
Transport services also faced disruption.
While buses went on unchanged, inter island ferries were brought to a halt – although crews were ready to operate for emergency services.
Tug crews were also on standby for ports and harbour emergencies.
Timetable changes had to be made to the inter island air service, as flights were diverted from Tingwall Airport to Sumburgh.
Refuse collections went ahead only in Bressay, while infrastructure services at Grantfield opened with a skeleton staff.
Emergency numbers were in operation for people with housing difficulties.
Because of a trade union exemption from the strike, all care centres remained open on the day of action.
Meals on wheels were unaffected, and a Wednesday lunch club for the elderly was held at the Freefield Centre in Lerwick, as normal.
A parent group meeting at the Bruce Family Centre went ahead as scheduled, although all youth clubs were cancelled on the day.
The Islesburgh Youth Hostel remained open, as did the Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness and Lerwick’s Bod of Gremista.
Unison’s Shetland representative Brian Smith said the strike was the only way for union members to put their message across.
“There are some people who have gone in to work – and they don’t usually refuse to take a pay rise when it has been successfully fought for – but they are by far in the minority,” he said.
“I’m more than satisfied by what has happened today, and I hear Cosla is making noises about going back to the table already.”
Mr Smith said he was confident union members had the support of the wider public.
“I’m confident this action is popular in the community. I’ve heard from one right wing councillor who thought sacking a couple of people would help, but that view is way out of line. Everybody I have spoken to have supported us.”
He said it was an unfortunate consequence of working in the public sector that services would suffer when strikes take place, and dismissed claims the strikes would hurt the wrong people.
“It’s like saying when the miners went on strike they were only hurting the people who burn coal.
“It is, but that’s the only way workers can make their presence felt.”
Mr Smith added he had seen “very few people walking through picket lines”.
But as the picket lines dispersed, it emerged Cosla had left the door open for future discussions to take place.
The authority’s spokesman for employers, Michael Cook, said he was disappointed the strike had taken place, and added it was in no one’s interests for the dispute to continue.
“We’re disappointed there was a disruption to services caused by the strike action,” he said.
“In our view, it’s in no one’s interests for there to be further disruption – least of all people in our communities who rely on services provided by council employees.
“In our view the only way to resolve this is by negotiation, and we would ask the unions to meet with us to jointly reach a solution to the difficult situation we all find ourselves in.”
He added the 2.5 per cent offer was in line with inflation when it was offered “in good faith” in March.
However trade unions rejected it and balloted their members for strike action, despite offers at the time for further talks.
The discussions will please finance minister John Swinney.
Speaking during a visit to Shetland this week he urged talks to avoid further action from taking place in the future.
“I would encourage both parties to try to resolve the dispute to ensure that there is no further interruption to public services and I hope that resolution can be achieved by local authorities and their employees,” he said.
Unions last week called on the Scottish government to intervene and provide adequate funding so that local authorities can address low pay.
But Mr Swinney has rejected those calls, saying that he has allocated resources to local authorities from the fixed sum it receives from the UK government.
In a difficult economic climate, he said, the Scottish government had done all it could to help those struggling to make ends meet by freezing the council tax and reducing business rates for small companies.