Leaders: Pensions row will tell a lot about SNP

The role of a trades union is to get the best possible deal for its members, and it is in that context that we must see the threat by Unison that nurses and hospital workers are considering targeted strike action in an increasingly bitter dispute over public-sector pensions.

It is regrettable that this action could result in the cancellation of hundreds of non-emergency operations in the already hard-pressed health service in Scotland, will inconvenience patients and add to the waiting list problems.

While we hope that even this restrained form of action can be avoided, there can be no doubt that the threat is real, and here is why: anger is growing among union members in the health service over what they see as a diminution of their pension provision at the hands of both the Westminster and Holyrood governments.

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Now, there will be many in the private sector who look at the increasing unrest in the public sector over pensions reforms with baffled incredulity. There are very few private companies that offer the final-salary pensions still available in much of the public sector.

The current wave of unrest, which also includes unions representing teachers, firefighters and the police, poses a conundrum for Alex Salmond and his government as we move towards the independence referendum.

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The unions maintain that while the bulk of the pensions arrangements are managed by Westminster, the SNP administration has it within its devolved powers to alleviate some of, in its eyes, the worst effects of planned changes – in Unison’s argument, for example, increasing health boards’ contributions to pensions.

Such a line of attack, which, though the details may differ, is echoed by other unions, somewhat undermines the SNP argument that while it sympathises with the workers’ case, pensions are reserved to Westminster under the current constitutional settlement and therefore the blame lies with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition.

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And it poses an awkward question for Mr Salmond and his colleagues. Do they concede the unions’ case in an effort to convince them, and their members, to support independence (a move which could entail a significant commitment to extra expenditure), or do they risk alienating potential Yes voters in 2014?

So will the SNP stick to its guns, and simply tough it out, as other government have to?

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Or with the referendum in sight, will they incur the extra cost in the hope of winning support for independence? To govern is to choose.

This decision will tell us whether the SNP is a party of government in power or merely a campaign group that happens to be in office.

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Country needs jewellery diamond

It IS a brand to which the much overused word iconic can properly be applied. The Ortak company has produced some of the most striking and original jewellery made in this country and had made it one of Scotland’s best recognised brands.

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Sadly for the firm, and for around 150 workers it employs, it was yesterday forced to call in the administrators, citing the recession and the rising costs of raw materials, in its case mainly silver, as the cause.

Of most immediate concern must be the future of the workers, including more than 40 who are based in Orkney where the company has its home. The loss of that number of jobs in a small island is a substantial blow. The local council, enterprise bodies and the Scottish Government should work together to see if they can help preserve employment, even over the short term.

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In the medium to longer term, there should be a concerted effort, again involving these bodies, to ensure the firm survives in one form or another. It would not just be a setback to Scotland in terms of jobs if it were to close altogether. It would be a blow to the hopes of creating a thriving small business sector, based on design innovation, quality craftsmanship and entrepreneurship.

Such is Ortak’s place in the world, it is to be hoped that a buyer can be found, perhaps a bigger company which can better cope with the problems thrown up by the global phenomenon of the recession and the increase in the price of silver – something the small company has found it hard to cope with.

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There must be a future for pioneering firms like Ortak. For the sake of the company and its employees, we hope the cloud of administration has a silver lining.