ONE of the few trade unions to formally campaign for a Yes vote has signed a controversial “no-strike” deal with SNP ministers in the first arrangement of its kind since devolution.
The leaders of the Prison Officers Association (POA) Scotland have signed away their members’ right to strike for two years in exchange for a £2,000 bonus payment – a move that has infuriated other trade unionists.
The bonus was announced by ministers last week and is the only enhanced pay deal offered to public sector workers, who are subject to a wage freeze.
At the time of the announcement, the no-strike aspect of the pact was not made public.
But Scotland on Sunday can reveal an arrangement was made that would see any prison officer taking industrial action over the next two years required to pay back the £2,000 lump sum – a move that could leave Scottish ministers open to the accusation that a “sweetheart deal” had been struck.
Confirming the deal, Andy Hogg, assistant general secretary of POA Scotland, said the union had agreed to “not seek to induce action” for “that period of time”.
The deal has angered the Labour Party and the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which accused the Scottish Government of bribing workers to give up a fundamental human right.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay accused ministers of effectively forcing prison officers to give up what the party said was a “fundamental right to withdraw their labour” in any potential future disputes with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), which runs the country’s jails on the government’s behalf.
The POA in Scotland withdrew a threat to strike over pay last week after justice secretary Michael Matheson agreed a deal for 3,500 prison staff, who will each get the one-off payout as part of a £7 million government package.
Union leader Hogg told Scotland on Sunday that prison officers north of the Border, who have a legal right to strike, unlike their colleagues in England and Wales, had agreed not to take industrial action for the next two years as part of the deal.
When asked if the POA had given an undertaking not to strike for two years, Hogg said: “We won’t [strike], not for the issue of pay for that period of time. We will not seek to induce action.”
He confirmed the prison service would be able to claw back the £2,000 pay-offs from union members who went on strike. “The SPS would have the right to recover that money,” Hogg said.
POA Scotland is affiliated to the STUC, the umbrella body for unions in Scotland. However, the deal by the POA will be seen as controversial. Other STUC affiliates with public sector members such as Unison, Unite, GMB and the PCS, could view the arrangement as the SNP government “buying off” the right to strike in a key area – the prison service.
Critics in the trade union movement may view the POA arrangement as one that leaves a “threat hanging over” prison officers who take industrial action. The deal could also raise the question of how the £2,000 pay-offs would be clawed back from any POA member going on strike.
The deal signed by POA Scotland effectively waives the right to strike of prison officers north of the border. The police are the only other group of public sector workers denied the right to strike in the UK.
Last night Grahame Smith, the STUC general secretary, was angered by the deal.
Smith said: “It is totally unacceptable for the Scottish Government or any employer to bribe any group of workers to give up a hard-won and fundamental democratic human right – the right to strike.
“The Scottish Government has a number of questions to answer about how it can stand with me and condemn the Tories for threatening to introduce strike ballot thresholds while at the same time encouraging a no-strike agreement in the Scottish Prison service.
“The POA in Scotland also has to recognise that as an STUC member union it has a responsibility to act in the collective interest of unions and not to do deals that disadvantage sister unions.”
He added: “Those parties that are trying to make political capital out of this should also be prepared to commit to repeal in full the legislation that removes the right of prison officers elsewhere in the UK to strike. “
Last night another trade union source said: “This deal is a complete disservice to the trade union movement and lays bare an unhealthy relationship between SNP ministers and the POA Scotland leadership.”
Findlay, Labour’s spokesman for fair work, said the arrangement – the first no-strike deal during the 16 years of devolution – was “astonishing”.
He said: “I commend the POA on securing a pay increase for their members but I am very concerned that the Scottish Government have in return demanded a no-strike agreement.
“The right for workers to withdraw their labour is a fundamental right recognised by the United Nations, so for the SNP government to demand the removal of this right in return for a financial award is frankly astonishing.
“How does this sit with the SNP’s claim to be the party that promotes fair work and champions social justice?”
POA Scotland declared its full support for the Yes Scotland campaign almost a year ahead of the independence referendum.
The Scottish membership of the rail union RMT narrowly voted to back independence in a ballot weeks before the referendum, although the union never formally campaigned on the issue.
An SPS spokeswoman said: “Both partners welcome the longer-term stability this agreement will provide, and further reflects the positive relationship between the POA Scotland and the SPS.”
The Scottish Government said the issue of pay for prison officers was an operational matter for the SPS.
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