The bulk of Shetland’s schools are likely to be shut due to the one-day strike by head teachers and local government workers over nationwide public sector pension changes, which unions say amount to a raid on their members’ pension pots to plug the UK’s financial deficit.
The SIC’s schools service said it was likely that the majority of schools across Shetland would close on 30th November, while many local government offices are also likely to be affected.
A council spokeswoman said three small island primaries – Skerries, Foula and Uyeasound – were likely to remain open to pupils. Some schools may still be open for staff who are not walking out, and full details will be issued to parents of schoolchildren next week once a formal notice of intention to strike has been received.
NHS chief executive Ralph Roberts said contingency plans were being put in place ahead of the 24-hour walkout, and he should be able to say more next week.
Members of public sector unions including Unison, the GMB and Unite have overwhelmingly voted in favour of the strike. Local Unison representative Brian Smith said he expected a significant number of council, trust and local government staff in Shetland would take part in the walkout, although negotiations with the UK government are still continuing.
At a time when most public sector workers are facing a pay freeze, Mr Smith said the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition was planning on “stealing money to deal with a deficit that our members have not created”. Under the proposals, he said, workers would have to work longer, pay more contributions and receive a poorer pension once they retired. The plans would see the state pension age rise from 65 to 68.
Talks are ongoing, though Mr Smith was dismissive of Tory minister Francis Maude’s suggestion that a “token” 15-minute strike could take place instead. “It’s not really up to Francis Maude what members of unions do,” he said. “He’s an anti-union member of an anti-union government – his opinion is irrelevant, as well as being barmy in this case.”
Unison balloted over one million members, with nearly eight in 10 voting yes to strike action. The GMB voted four-to-one in favour of a strike and yesterday three quarters of the Unite members who voted backed the walkout, which the union described as a “resounding result”. Turnout in each case hovered around one third of members, which Mr Maude suggested meant support for the strike was “extremely limited”.
Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who is a whip in the coalition government, said he hoped a walkout could be averted after the government made “significant and substantial concessions”. He believes the strike is based on “resistance to any change at all” and does not think the unions’ case will be “readily understood by many people”.
“I know nobody who thinks that pension reform is avoidable because we are all living much longer after retirement than we did when the current pension arrangements were made,” he said. “Anybody who is within 10 years of retirement will not be affected by [the changes] … and pensions for people on low and middle incomes will be significantly better than they presently are.”
Mr Carmichael added: “I completely understand that many people in public services have made a conscious decision to stay in them because of their pension entitlement, and that is why protection for people who are less than 10 years from retirement is so important.”
Meanwhile, Mr Smith said relations between local trade unions and the SIC had improved following detailed discussions with the local authority last Wednesday. He said chief executive Alistair Buchan had taken on board unions’ feeling that the council needed to keep staff better informed about the ongoing restructuring.
“I think that the fuss we made over the past couple of weeks has borne fruit,” he said. “I think Alistair Buchan in particular and the council in general are taking the question of communication much more seriously. So things are better, there’s no doubt about that.”
He said the unions still felt the recent round of cuts consultations had been an “incomprehensible” waste of time, as the SIC should have taken “specific information and ideas to the public to discuss, rather than expect the public to come up with ideas in the first place”.