HUNDREDS of public sector workers in Shetland have joined their colleagues up and down the country in a 24 hour walk out over pensions.
The national strike, the largest in a generation, comes after the government and union leaders failed to reach an agreement.
Union members said the proposed reform of the public workers’ pension scheme was a “money-grab” and a “stealth tax” to pay for the deficit and bankers’ bonuses.
In Shetland almost all schools were closed, many council offices are operating on a skeleton staff and the inter-island ferries are not running. NHS Shetland said most services were running without disruption.
Union members braved rain and hail in forming picket lines early on Wednesday morning at Charlotte House, Hayfield House, Grantfield and at the Gilbert Bain Hospital.
Around 70 union members were hit by torrential rain as they marched through Lerwick from the car park of the Toll Clock shopping centre to the Market Cross.
Meanwhile a delegation from the teachers’ union EIS handed in a letter of protest to government deputy chief whip and northern isles MP Alistair Carmichael’s office in Lerwick.
At least seven different unions joined the strike in Shetland: the local government and the NHS branches of Unison, as well as GMB, UNITE, the EIS, the coastguard union PCS and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapist Union, CSP.
They argue that the coalition government’s austerity measures are being paid for by the poorest in society.
Unison branch chairman Brian Smith said: “People are being asked to pay more and to work longer. People have worked in the expectation that they are going to get these pensions and they are now being removed from them by a cabinet of millionaires.”
Stuart Hubbard, of the Unison branch at NHS Shetland, said Tuesday’s autumn statement by chancellor George Osborne had made life for public sector workers even more difficult.
“We believe in supplying high-quality public services. However, we have just heard that on top of the two year pay freeze we get a salary increase of just one per cent over two years at a time when inflations is at 4.5 to five per cent.
“On top of that our pension is being reduced. I don’t think that bodes for a well motivated work force and will lead to a lower quality in public services.”
Director of clinical services at NHS Shetland Simon Boker-Ingram said: “We don’t have major service disruptions, however we do have some services which are not running today.
“What we do have is an adequate services provision for emergencies. We also have the normal consultants-led activities going on with planned clinics.”
Clerical workers, office managers, teachers, coastguard watch officers, nurses, youth workers and many more say their pensions are being unfairly targeted by the government to help resolve the financial crisis they are not responsible for.
Coastguard watch assistant and PCS union member Bob Skinley said: “What it means is that I have to work longer for less, and work until I am much older. We fail to see why we should be made the scapegoat for effectively what the bankers did in ruining this country, in crashing the stock market, in breaking the banks, and we are now expected to pick up the tab for that.
“This is not about pensions, this is a money grab to make us pay for the mess the banks created.”
Patient travel manager Margaret Jamieson said: “At the moment most of us are paying between five and 9.5 per cent, and we are looking at an increase of 3.2 per cent. People will not be able to afford that.
“What will happen is that people will opt out of the pension scheme and then how are we going to support the benefits for those who need them?”
Youth worker Martin Summers said he was out on a strike for the first time in his life.
He said: “We are going to be affected greatly by the pension changes that are being proposed. We will have to pay more and we will get less at the end of it. It is important for young people like myself to come out and support the union and be an active member.”
At the same time the marchers gathered at the Market Cross, a seven strong delegation from the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) handed in an open letter to Mr Carmichael’s office in Commercial Street, while the MP was in London.
Local EIS president Bernie Cranie said: “Essentially this is a stealth tax. We don’t regard this as being an issue solely about pensions. The aim is to reduce the earnings of every local government employee in the country to pay for the deficit and the banker’s bonuses which are now not being taxed. There is no equity in this.”
Members of the public seemed generally in support of the protest march. One pedestrian commented: “I absolutely support the strike and oppose the crooks in parliament.”
Another added: “It is going to cause problems for some people, and be an inconvenience, but how else can the unions get their message across?”
But not everyone supported the strike action. One father said he had to take a day off work because he couldn’t find suitable childcare arrangements. “It’s costing me a day’s pay and not benefitting me, I don’t support it,” he said.
Another said: “I worked in the public sector and I’m now in the private sector. I always felt that it was a bit of a comfy gig to be honest. Public sector workers actually have it better than us, and just don’t realise it.”
(with help from James Stewart)
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