Talk of winter-time strike action by council workers in Shetland is growing as unions protest about the “draconian” three-year pay deal imposed by Cosla across Scottish local authorities.
Most council workers are to get just a 0.65 per cent rise for this year, backdated to April, followed by a two-year pay freeze – a poorer deal than was offered four months ago. Chief officials and teachers are unaffected, having negotiated their own respective 2.5 and 2.4 per cent pay rises this year.
The Shetland branch of the main SIC union Unison is due to meet shortly to discuss action following what chairman Brian Smith said yesterday was not a happy meeting of the Scottish union in Glasgow on Friday.
“The basic point is that inflation is about four per cent and they’re offering less than they appeared to be offering a couple of months ago. They have completely failed to take onboard the proposals that the unions were making about low paid members.”
Meanwhile, the council’s representative on Cosla, councillor Gary Robinson, was in Edinburgh today at one of its meetings, although it was not a session relating directly to the deal. He said afterwards Cosla appeared to be sticking to its guns despite the uproar. “At the moment there’s no movement.”
In Shetland’s case he said the local authority was already facing big spending cuts while having to fund a £4 million wage increase resulting from the single status deal plus a substantial rise in the wages bill due to the extra social care staff having to be taken on.
Any eventual strike action was not going to be helpful at all at a time when councils have to implement cuts, he said. Some Shetland councillors have already called for an end to the policy of no compulsory redundancies, although Mr Robinson did not add his name to that sentiment.
He said many local authorities facing major spending cuts had been “uneasy about the generosity” of Cosla’s original pay offer, which consisted of a 1 per cent rise this year followed by a freeze next year and then a 0.5 per cent rise in 2012/13.
But Mr Smith said the unions had wanted to adapt that offer to redistribute the extra pay to benefit lower-paid workers more. “There was no response to that from the employers and now they have simply walked away from negotiations and decided to impose this,” he said.
At a national level, unions described the deal as “totally unfair” and accused Cosla of “doing the dirty” on local government workers. The Unite union said it was considering consulting its members on potential industrial action.
Local TGWU-Unite representative Alistair Christie Henry said his union was “absolutely disgusted” that a deal was being imposed. “Across all councils they’re looking at making reductions in harmony with the workforce. To impose something at this stage is fairly draconian.”
He is particularly concerned about the impact on lower-paid workers at a time of buoyant inflation. While the union might be willing to make a one-off sacrifice to address financial shortfalls this year, he said, they are less happy at that continuing for a further two years.
“If we’re suffering the hardship this financial year, we should be looking at a rosier future in the next two years,” said Mr Christie-Henry.
“The biggest drawback is that somebody at a level of high earnings could live without the increase, but we’re looking at an inflation rate of around 4.5 per cent and lowest-paid workers getting a 0.65 per cent increase. Again what we have is the differentials widening between high and low pay. What we’d have preferred to have seen is anything that helps lower-paid workers.”
GMB union representative Robert Williamson said the Cosla tactic of imposing a deal was one the unions had seen before. “They did this previously whereby they didn’t get total agreement with the unions and they just imposed it, and they got away with it in that instance.”
When Cosla announced the deal after a meeting in Edinburgh on 27th August it said the “overwhelming rejection” of their original offer by unions meant they had no option but to withdraw it and impose the new deal.
Cosla human resources spokesman Michael Cook said the organisation had gone “the extra mile” for its workforce, previously offering what was “the absolute extremity of what councils could afford”.
The pay curbs and spending cuts are part of the medicine being dispensed by the UK government. Referring to the situation nationally, Brian Smith said the Tory-Lib Dem coalition believed the way to improve the economy was to slash public spending whereas that was more likely to cause economic difficulties. “Unfortunately in Shetland we have a situation where our MP is 100 per cent in favour of that way of looking at things.”