ScotRail strikes: Public sector worker strikes overwhelmingly backed by Scottish public

Scots would overwhelmingly back public sector workers striking over pay and conditions over the summer, a new poll has shown.

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The support for strikers, registering at two-thirds of Scots, comes as the Scottish Police Federation instructed officers to withdraw “goodwill” amid a pay dispute and as the UK braces itself for industrial action over the summer.

Unions said the support was “no surprise” given the ongoing cost-of-living crisis biting all households, while government critics said it would act as a “wake-up call” for SNP ministers.

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Writing for Scotland on Sunday, transport minister Jenny Gilruth blamed the UK government’s handling of trade union relationships, accusing them of having an “ideological anti-union stance”.

The poll, undertaken by Savanta ComRes for Scotland on Sunday, interviewed 1,029 Scots aged 16 or over between June 23 and 28.

In total, 64 per cent of Scots said they were either “absolutely” or “generally” supportive of striking workers, with 29 per cent stating they were opposed, of which 10 per cent were “absolutely” opposed.

Asked about specific areas of work, support for those potentially striking remained consistently the majority view.

The highest level of support found would be for nurses with 63 per cent supporting strike action, followed by teachers and railway workers (both 58 per cent), council workers including street cleaners and refuse collectors (57 per cent), and doctors (52 per cent).

Strike action could become more prevalent over the coming months as the cost of living crisis hits. Picture: PAStrike action could become more prevalent over the coming months as the cost of living crisis hits. Picture: PA
Strike action could become more prevalent over the coming months as the cost of living crisis hits. Picture: PA

It comes as more Scots are saying they are being forced to borrow money from friends and family due to the cost-of-living crisis, with 22 per cent now stating they had to do this within the past six months, up from 18 per cent in May.

The number of people who say they can afford their household bills has also dropped from 59 per cent in March to 55 per cent.

Trade unions welcomed the support, with GMB Scotland, who are balloting 10,000 council workers within waste and recycling and schools and early years, saying the public was empathising with workers struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

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Louise Gilmour, secretary of the union, which rejected a two per cent pay offer from council umbrella body Cosla, also hit out at politicians.

She said: “The lowest paid in society particularly understand the pressures many frontline staff have faced, like working throughout lockdowns without proper PPE or sick pay support, all while being valued poorly for their labour.

“They don’t identify with an out-of-touch political elite who had the luxury of working from home for the last few years, and whose doorstep applause doesn’t ring so loud when they are now telling workers to swallow more cuts.

“Ultimately what this shows is that political leaders at all levels of government risk becoming even more distant from our key workers and the public who rely on their services, and that only makes industrial action more likely.”

Tracey Dalling, Scottish secretary of UNISON, which represents public service workers, said the numbers “reflect our experience that the public are firmly behind us”.

She said: “I think they remember that public services workers kept society working throughout the pandemic – in councils, the NHS and education – and these polling figures seem to show that the public understand how unfair it is that they are now hit with real-terms pay cuts.

“I also think that while these disputes are about decent pay, the public want to see investment that builds world-class public services, not councils and education cut to the bone and serious staff shortages in the NHS.

"They are struggling to recruit right across our public services. We have over 6,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. The workforce need access to training, decent pay, and not to be constantly exhausted because they are working under pressure.”

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Unite’s regional secretary Pat Rafferty said methods like fire and rehire and replacing striking workers with agency workers meant there was a “growing realisation and appreciation” among the public of the work undertaken by trade unions.

He said: “There is also increasing recognition that industrial action, including striking, is often the only avenue available when workers, who kept the country going throughout the pandemic, face wage cuts, job cuts and changes to terms and conditions”.

Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, said doctors and dentists were still awaiting the outcome of a pay review body report due to make recommendations to the Scottish Government.

“We are clear that a below inflation award – effectively a pay cut, coming on the back of years of pay erosion and years of working in an overstretched system that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic – will be a huge blow to morale,” he said.

"Improving pay is just one part of what we need to do make doctors working lives better, but it’s a crucial part that really matters. We need to start reversing the pay cuts we have seen over time this year and for years to come to restore pay to levels that better reflect the responsibility of the jobs we do.”

Miles Briggs, the Scottish Conservative’s local government spokesperson, said the polling should be a “wake-up call” for the SNP.

He said: “They’ve made an insulting, derisory officer to our hard-working police officers, which has meant they are set to take the toughest action officers have done in over a century.

“Coupled with the SNP’s savage year-on-year cuts to councils, which has decimated local services, it is little wonder many workers are at the end of their tether and have the backing of the public.

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“Nicola Sturgeon and SNP ministers cannot continue to pass the buck when it comes to industrial action. They must engage in a much better fashion than they have done so far, rather than being distracted by another independence referendum.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrat’s finance spokesperson, John Ferry, said: "Scotland is paying the price for 15 years of SNP misrule and sluggish growth which has meant less tax revenues to pay for the public services we all rely on.

"With the cost of living soaring, it's no surprise that workers are looking for a pay rise that keeps pace with inflation.

"The Scottish Government needs to be pro-active about engaging with teachers, nurses and police officers to ensure that services are protected and staff get a fair deal."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Negotiations on pay settlements are a matter for employers and trade unions and it is right for them to together follow the recognised collective bargaining processes.

“Public sector staff play a crucial role across the country and a satisfactory agreement between employers and staff benefits them and the public alike. Maintaining a progressive approach to industrial relations is a priority for the Scottish Government, unlike the position being taken by the UK Government, which intends to make ill thought-out and hasty changes to the law around industrial action.

“The Scottish Government’s approach along with greater – not fewer – protections for workers is at the heart of a fairer, more successful society and the Fair Work policy will continue to promote fair work practices across the labour market in Scotland.”

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