Several trade unions in Shetland are to stage a march through the streets of Lerwick tomorrow morning as part of industrial action over UK government changes to public sector pensions.
Unison, GMB and PCS union members, and possibly some other unions, are to march from Bolts to the Market Cross beginning at 10.30am. Public service workers in the isles are to join two million or more workers throughout the UK in a 24-hour walkout.
The strike – which is expected to bring the bulk of the Shetland economy to a standstill – will see some professions, most notably teachers, taking their first nationwide industrial action in several decades.
Picket lines are expected at many of Shetland Islands Council’s 74 addresses, including at Hayfield House, Charlotte House and the infrastructure department at Grantfield. Classrooms in all but a handful of small primary schools are set to be deserted, while inter-island ferries will not run except in emergencies and council harbours at Scalloway and Sullom Voe will be shut.
Local Unison branch representative Brian Smith said he believed the trade unions were winning in the battle for public sympathy, with more than half of the population now supportive of the strike action. A BBC poll yesterday suggested 61 per cent of people believe public sector workers are justified in going on strike.
Mr Smith said the strikes were being supported “despite all the misinformation in the Tory press”, adding: “Despite all the efforts that the coalition government – down to local MPs like Alistair Carmichael – have devoted to rubbishing this strike, the unions are getting their message across.”
Unions say the changes would mean staff having to work longer, pay greater contributions and receive a lesser pension when they retire.
Local EIS representatives, for instance, point out that their members are already facing a pay freeze amid high inflation. That, combined with added pension contributions, amounted to a “real-terms pay cut of well over eight per cent” for teachers and lecturers.
The government maintains that reform is unavoidable, mainly because people are living for longer. The plans include raising the state pension age from 65 to 68, though Mr Carmichael stressed that anyone less than a decade from retirement would be protected.
Mr Carmichael told The Shetland Times he did not understand why unions which bankroll the opposition Labour party were taking a “political stance” and taking their members out on strike in the middle of negotiations.
“A few weeks ago the union leadership were saying that the concessions that had been made were real and significant progress,” he said.
It was clear from email correspondence he has received from union members that some of the information they have been receiving had been “misleading” to put it generously, Mr Carmichael said. He insisted he understood public sector workers’ concerns, but also sympathised with those who were having to make alternative childcare arrangements to look after children who cannot go to school on Wednesday.
“Even if they were given entirely accurate information, the charges are still going to be unsettling and disturbing for people – I completely understand that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a sensible thing for [the unions] to be doing. But it’s their right to do it, and I’m not going to criticise anyone for exercising their right in that way.”
The Northern Isles MP has absorbed quite a few body blows regarding his involvement in the coalition government over the past 18 months. He said he looked very differently on the strikes to some of his Tory colleagues, but that did not mean he could “wave a magic wand” to allow “unsustainable” pension schemes to continue indefinitely.
“You can tell from the comments of some of the local union conveners that they see this as a political opportunity to criticise me and the Liberal Democrats,” he said. “If they want to proceed in that way I can’t stop them, but I will continue dialogue with anybody that wants to talk to me about this.”