Inter island ferry services could face disruption after union members voted unanimously for industrial action.
Crew members have given their backing for a series of short stoppages following a lengthy dispute over pay.
Leaders from the public services union Unite flew to the isles today for high level talks with representatives from Shetland Islands Council. But this morning’s negotiations failed to reach a deal.
That means a series of one or two hour stoppages are likely to be held later this month if the row can still not be brought to a close.
A work-to-rule is also likely which will prevent mates from acting up as skippers when there are staff shortages.
The dispute surrounds whether workers should move up a grade. Union leaders insist mates serving on the council’s ferries saw their pay grade drop following the latest re-evaluation of salaries within the SIC.
The issue could prove to be a headache for the council, given its recent well-documented difficulties in keeping its ferries fully crewed and its reliance on the goodwill of crew members.
Unite’s regional organiser, John Taylor, said the 12 mates involved felt they had no choice but to stage industrial action.
Following the breakdown of talks he said: “I think both parties re-affirmed their positions and we informed them that our members would be considering what industrial action to take and we would be giving them seven days notice next week.
“These crews want to cause as little disruption as possible, but after two years of discussions we’re no further forward, so there’s nothing left to do but take industrial action.”
He said it would be up to the union membership to decide what form of action to take, but short stoppages would be likely.
“Remember, these people for the last two years have worked normally to try to resolve this. The ferries couldn’t run without their goodwill as mates. When there is a shortage of skippers they act up.
“Our recommendation would be that the goodwill has now gone and that they no longer act up.”
Head of infrastructure services, Maggie Sandison, said ferry crews did not suffer a wage cut – they just failed to get the increase they expected following an initial round of pay re-assessment.
“We’re very keen to resolve the issue with our staff and the unions and are really disappointed it has resulted in a ballot for strike action.
“I suppose the particular challenge that we have is that we have a single status collective agreement, and any issues to do with pay and grading have to fit within that collective agreement.
“Obviously, we’re committed to fair and equal pay for all council staff, which means that essentially we can’t treat the marine staff differently from the rest of the staff within that single status collective agreement.”
She agreed the council relied on the goodwill of ferry staff.
“Certainly, when we’ve reviewed staffing levels as part of the ferry review to try and drive down the cost of the ferries while maintaining the lifeline service, we’ve reduced the number of staff.
“That means we’ve relied on the goodwill of staff to cover on overtime and act up entire roles. Obviously, that’s not something we can contractually oblige them to do. So there will be service implications if that good will is withdrawn.”
She added more talks would be taking place to try and resolve the situation.
“We’re absolutely committed to finding a resolution to this dispute, but it has to be essentially within the collective agreement terms and conditions.”