Dozens of public sector workers in Shetland braved torrential rain and cold winds this morning to march in protest against UK government cuts to their pension schemes.
Around 70 members of trade unions including Unison local government and health branches and the GMB marched from the shopping centre at Toll Clock to the Market Cross under dark winter morning skies.
Hundreds of workers took part in the strike action, which caused widespread disruption to public services within Shetland Islands Council and NHS Shetland. Most schools were shut for the day and inter-island ferries were shut down, though the NHS stressed it had maintained “adequate” emergency provision.
Those marching through the streets of Lerwick stopped off at Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael’s constituency office on Commercial Street. A delegation from teachers’ union the EIS hand-delivered a letter urging Mr Carmichael – a whip in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition – to re-assess his stance on the pension changes, which he views as “unavoidable” because people are living for longer.
Wearing brightly-coloured purple Unison vests and carrying placards, the marchers – some with toy trumpets – were a noisy and cheerful bunch. They attracted many hoots of support from passing motorists and even a cyclist labouring up the hill rang his bell in approval.
There were pickets and placards outside the council’s infrastructure services office at Grantfield, where Unison member and amenity trust archaeologist Val Turner said: “The Scottish local government pension fund is solvent. It’s very unfair, especially on people coming to the end of their working life and on low paid workers.”
GMB member Robert Williamson said the Westminster coalition was “trying to hold the Scottish government to ransom” by threatening to cut part of the block grant if it did not implement changes. “It seems like a shame trying to penalise people preparing for their future,” he said.
As the march proceeded through Lerwick, seasoned union campaigner Brian Smith of Unison told The Shetland Times the message was getting across that the “onslaught” on public service pensions was “a disgrace”.
It is the first time EIS members have taken strike action in quarter of a century, and their letter urges Mr Carmichael to use his influence within government to persuade Lib Dem and Conservative colleagues to “reverse measures that are deeply damaging to the present and future living standards of teachers and others in the public sector”.
The letter asks: “Why … is it unavoidable that a coalition government which has let the bankers off lightly, should make teachers and others pay for an economic mess they did not create?”
More than 20 picketers gathered outside the Gilbert Bain Hospital in bitterly cold conditions. Among the group of NHS Shetland staff was first-time striker and Unison member Ingri Johnson, an information analyst.
“This is no just about us, it’s about our future, our bairns and the future of the country,” she said. “We fear an old age in abject poverty. I’ve been against striking all my life. But since I’ve been a member of a union I support the ideals and principles behind the organisation.”
In his autumn statement yesterday, UK chancellor George Osborne announced that public sector pay would be capped, rising by only 1 per cent a year between 2013 and 2015 on the back of a two-year pay freeze. The unions view that announcement and its timing as inflammatory.
“The government isn’t going to get away with this,” Mr Smith said. “The more of this pain, the more people will react against it. We’ve seen the change in the opinion polls in favour of the strike recently. That’s going to happen more and more over the next months, or years.”
Speaking after the march, Mr Smith said people from Stranraer to Shetland had come out to support a strike against an attempt to steal from their pensions to pay off the country’s financial deficit.
Though the geographically fragmented nature of public services in the isles always made it difficult to tell, his “strong impression” was that very large numbers of people had participated in the strike.
“There are usually small numbers that will never strike, even though people are striking on their behalf,” Mr Smith said. “Generally speaking, I would say the strike was well supported today, not only in local government but also in the health service.”
The industrial action has, as expected, caused disruption to a large proportion of council services. As well as classrooms being deserted and ferries remaining berthed at their terminals, many SIC offices and services have been operating with only a skeleton staff.
A council spokeswoman said: “Many council staff have worked hard to minimise the effects, and have continued to provide essential services to the public who need them most. We have been assisted in doing our job today by the public who have understood that there would be restricted service levels.
“We hope that the remainder of this disrupted day passes off satisfactorily and are all looking forward to getting back to normal service tomorrow.”
A spokeswoman for the Lerwick job centre said the office was closed because staff members, who belong to the PCS union, were supporting the strike. She said: “The government wants us to pay more into our pensions, work longer and get less at the end.”
Additional reporting by Rosalind Griffiths.