Industrial action on is expected to cause a shutdown of inter-island ferry services, the desertion of most school classrooms and the closure of harbours at Scalloway and Sullom Voe on Wednesday.
A council spokesman said yesterday that there was likely to be “disruption to a range of council services”. All schools, with the exception of Uyeasound, Skerries, Foula, Burravoe and Fair Isle, look set to be shut.
Teachers and lecturers in Shetland will join colleagues and other public sector workers in taking part in the nationwide 24-hour strike, which will see up to two million UK workers walking out in protest over government changes to public sector pensions.
Members of EIS (the Educational Institute of Scotland) became the latest union to vote in favour of industrial action this week. Members of other public sector unions including Unison, the GMB and Unite had already voted overwhelmingly in favour of the strike. The unions say the proposed changes amount to a raid on their members’ pension pots to plug the UK’s financial deficit.
Scalloway school’s nursery will be open but evening classes at the AHS and Brae are likely to be cancelled. Shetland College and Islesburgh Community Centre will both be shut while the Janet Courtney Hostel will operate with a “skeleton staff only”.
No ferries will operate, though emergency cover, vet, hydro and water call-outs will be provided. The council-run harbours at Scalloway and Sullom Voe will likewise only provide emergency cover.
There will be no general gritting or roads services unless in emergencies. It is expected there will be disruption to flights in and out of Tingwall Airport, while bus service 24 will not operate due to the absence of ferry runs.
The criminal justice and housing offices will both be closed to the public. Exemptions from strike action include essential residential services for special needs adults and children, residential and home care, meals on wheels, special needs transport and essential winter roads maintenance.
NHS Shetland said its frontline services would be broadly unaffected thanks to union co-operation. Key hospital, GP, dental and community departments were “planning to provide their normal range of services with few exceptions”, a spokesman said.
Those with hospital or GP appointments on 30th November are advised to attend unless contacted by the NHS. Those with x-ray request forms are being asked not to attend on that day, though the department will “deal with all emergencies”.
The NHS spokesman added: “Working in partnership with our trade union colleagues, who are committed to providing a high-quality patient care, we have been able to ensure an adequate level of service delivery for patients on the 30th November whilst recognising the right to take strike action.
“The normal level of staffing that we have in place to deal with emergencies day or night will not be diminished and will continue to be provided as usual. If there are any changes to the information we have provided as we approach the 30th November, we will use local radio to get messages out to residents in a timely manner.”
EIS Shetland secretary Bernie Cranie said the Tory-Lib Dem coalition’s proposed changes would result in a real-terms pay cut of more than eight per cent for teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers – coming on top of a two-year pay freeze and other suggested cuts to terms and conditions for teachers.
Prime Minister David Cameron this week described the action – expected to close classrooms throughout Britain – as the “height of irresponsibility”. Urging public sector workers to “put the people of Britain first and work normally next Wednesday”, Mr Cameron said “ordinary people” would be the victims of the strike.
Mr Cranie said the EIS was reluctant to walk out – it is the first national strike action to be taken by teachers and lecturers for quarter of a century – but had been driven to doing so by “continuing cuts to public services and sustained attacks on the living standards of public sector workers”.
He said: “We hope that parents, students and the wider community in Shetland will understand that we are taking this action as a last resort. Teachers and lecturers are continuing to do their best to provide a quality education for learners under very difficult conditions, but now their goodwill is being eroded by continuing attacks on their employment terms and conditions.”
Mr Cranie said the latest “attack” on pensions would force teachers and lecturers to pay more, work longer and receive poorer pensions. Increased employee pension contributions would be equivalent to an average 3.2 per cent cut in pay.
At a time when inflation stands at over five per cent, this would “equate to a real-terms pay cut of well over eight per cent for every teacher and lecturer in Scotland.”
Mr Cranie said: “We are taking this day of action in defence of public services and those who work in these services. We believe that our schools, colleges and universities and our pupils and students deserve the best.
“But this cannot be delivered on the cheap. There must be proper investment in our public services and fair pay and conditions, including pensions, for the public sector workers who deliver them.”
Mr Cranie added that EIS members hoped parents and the wider community would support the day of action.
Meanwhile, EIS Shetland executive member Irvine Tait has rejected Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael’s suggestion that pension reforms were “unavoidable”.
In a letter to this newspaper Mr Tait said the pension contribution increases were “simply a tax aimed at addressing a budget deficit caused by greedy bankers and the inept political class that failed to regulate them”.
Last week Mr Carmichael, a party whip in the Westminster coalition, said the fact that people were living longer after retirement made pension reform inevitable. He stressed that the government had made “significant and substantial” concessions.
The plans would see the state pension age rise from 65 to 68, but Mr Carmichael pointed out that anyone less than a decade from retirement would be protected.
In response, Mr Tait stated: “In the days ahead we will no doubt hear a good deal of union-bashing from members of the Con/Dem coalition. It is of course easy to lecture the public on the need to make sacrifices when you are sitting on a gold-plated pension and know that your expenses will be picked up by the taxpayer.”
Lifelong socialist Davie Thomason, who now lives in Victoria, Australia, this week expressed Antipodean workers’ solidarity with the cause and sent their “best wishes” to trade union members in Shetland ahead of the strike.
In a letter in today’s Shetland Times, he writes on behalf of the Australian unions: “All around the world workers and communities are facing the same pressures to make ends meet and keep a decent standard of living.
“The gap between rich and poor has never been worse and the only future that big business offers is to privatise more, have deeper cuts to services and reduce wages while they accumulate ever increasing wealth.
“Unions taking action like a national strike is an important way to oppose governments implementing policies that only benefit the rich. Governments should rule for the majority not the rich minority and international corporations. We are inspired by the unions in Shetland taking up the fight for workers and their families.”