FERRY USERS are being warned to expect “significant” disruption to Shetland’s inter-island service after the Unite union said it would resume industrial action starting next week.
A dispute over the grading of ferry mates has been rumbling on for some time, and as of next week they will refuse to “act up” when the vessel’s skippers are unavailable.
There will be stoppages for the next four Wednesdays. On 21 and 28 January the ferries will remain tied up between 5.45am and 8.45am, escalating to six-hour stoppages ending at 11.45am on 4 and 11 February.
The latter two stoppages, effectively knocking out an entire morning of sailings, will “have a greater impact on workers, schoolchildren and businesses”, the council said.
Unite and SIC representatives attended a session with arbitration service ACAS aimed at hammering out a solution to issues raised by the council-employed ferry mates.
However the local authority said the union rejected a number of measures which offered “an improvement in the pay grades of mates to the level they hoped for, and improved their general terms and conditions”.
The council said it pledged to pay the mates extra to recognise the need to be trained and qualified to deputise for masters – in addition to extra payments they already receive on occasions when they step up.
But Unite branch representative John Taylor hit back, saying the council was failing to understand what the dispute is about. He said there was “nothing new on the table”, so union members will press ahead with the strike.
Counter proposals from Unite, drawn up by ACAS, are to be submitted to the SIC in the next few days.
Council officials will then table a report to the policy and resources committee later this month or early in February. Infrastructure director Maggie Sandison said she was “disappointed” the union was taking action in the meantime.
She said recent bad weather highlighted the problems ferry disruptions can cause. In addition to affecting commuters coming out of the islands, SIC care workers and teachers won’t be able to travel in to deliver services.
The NHS will also be affected – although Unite has committed to suspend its action in the event of emergencies.
Environment and transport committee chairman Michael Stout said he had hoped the “positive offer” would be acceptable to Unite.
The council has “done everything we can” to find a solution and it is “difficult to see where we have any wriggle room at the moment”, he told journalists at a briefing in Lystina House on Wednesday morning.
Stout said the dispute essentially centred on the relevance of local government umbrella body COSLA’s nationally-agreed job evaluation scheme. It is “designed to make sure every employee is treated equally and paid fairly for the work they do”.
“The council had offered a redesigned post that recognised their ability to act as master and paid them at the grade they wanted,” he said.
“However the union appears to be adamant in its view that the national job evaluation scheme does not adequately address mates’ jobs in a marine environment – despite the issue having already gone through a formal appeals process, re-evaluation and independent assessment.”
He said the council felt Unite was asking it to “break that agreement for this staff group”.
“Councillors will hear the union’s proposals later this month,” Stout added. “It is particularly disappointing that Unite are not willing to suspend their industrial action until the proposal has been considered.
“In the meantime, I’d ask ferry users to bear with us as we try to minimise the inevitable impact of this industrial action.”
Council human resources manager Denise Bell said there were staff throughout the SIC who “act up”, for example social care workers, and it would be wrong to treat one group of staff differently from others.
But Taylor said the problem stemmed from ferry mates initially being put on a higher grade two years ago, before that was changed.
“We believe that that was wrong, and the system did not take into consideration the role of the mate,” he said. “Whatever they’ve said about ‘super mates’ or ‘temporary mates’ acting up as skipper has nothing whatsoever to do with the reason for the dispute.”
Taylor pointed out that the council had not committed to abiding by any recommendations put forward by ACAS.
“It might say that we’re wrong, or it might say that our argument is justified. All they [the council] have said is they’ll look at the ACAS report and they’ll present that to the council.
“We consulted our members, and as far as they were concerned they believed that they had been let down, there was nothing new on the table and therefore they wanted, reluctantly, to go back to industrial action.”