Exclusive:Strikes Scotland: Trade unions call for urgent intervention from SNP ministers amid strike threat

Shona Robison accused of ‘completely disingenuous and misleading’ comments as row heats up

Trade union leaders have called for an urgent intervention from the Scottish Government as they warned the clock is ticking on looming strike action.

Shona Robison, the deputy first minister and finance secretary, told The Scotsman she hopes to avoid industrial action by local authority workers in the months ahead.

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However, she said their pay was a matter for councils – a comment trade union bosses dismissed as “completely disingenuous and misleading”.

Unions are warning of industrial unrest amid fears councils are preparing a below-inflation pay offer of 3 per cent. Schools across Scotland closed last year as support staff walked out in a row over pay.

Asked about the prospect of strikes later in the year, Ms Robison said: “I certainly hope we don’t see that because I don’t think that is good for anyone. But what I would say is it is obviously a matter for local authorities to negotiate these matters with trade unions.

“We have given local authorities a record level of investment in tough financial times. They have an increasing share of Scottish Government funding – £14 billion all in – and in terms of the funding they have it’s important that they work through these issues with trade union colleagues.

“We take industrial relations and our relationship with trade union colleagues very seriously, and they are very important to us in terms of the fair work agenda, but matters that are for local authorities in negotiation with the trade unions are really for them. But I feel that we have given local authorities a fair budget in tough times.”

Schools were among public facilities to shut last year amid a wave of strikes, as janitors, cleaners, classroom assistants and cooking staff took part in widespread industrial action.

GMB Scotland, one of the biggest unions in the public sector, said it had already opened a consultative ballot of all council workers in readiness to move to a formal vote on industrial action.

Keir Greenaway, GMB Scotland senior organiser in public services, said: “If the deputy first minister really wants to avoid industrial action in the public sector, then she needs to act, not talk. She talks of record financial support for local authorities, they talk of cutbacks and reduced services, and our members prepare for another fight to get a fair pay offer.

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“If the deputy first minster does not want strikes, then our members need more than platitudes, hand-wringing and buck-passing. She has the opportunity right now, today, to do more than talk and to intervene and actually make a difference.

“We need urgent, joint talks with the Scottish Government, council leaders and trade unions on how to release the funding that can secure a pay offer that fairly recognises our members’ work. The offer being prepared is already too late, but will almost certainly be too low and we are already asking our members their view on taking industrial action because the clock is ticking.”

Unison, the biggest union in local government, said both Cosla – the council umbrella body – and the Scottish Government “must learn from last year’s mistakes”.

David O’Connor, its local government lead for Scotland, said: “Cosla need to make a much stronger case to the Scottish Government for fair funding for councils. The vast bulk of local government funding comes from central government and the council tax freeze is a Scottish Government policy.

“Audit Scotland report that Scottish councils face unprecedented financial pressures, which present real risks to their future. The Account Commission says councils face a funding gap of £725 million.

“Government ministers must work with Cosla and unions as early as possible to find a fair pay settlement. They can’t just opt out of the problems. Making council workers wait for months for a cost-of-living pay increase causes anger and distrust, which make it much harder to reach a settlement.”

Graham McNab, Unite industrial officer, said: “Shona Robinson’s comments over local government pay are completely disingenuous and misleading. The truth is the Scottish Government are the paymasters and to suggest that negotiations lie exclusively between councils and trade unions fails to reflect the reality. Over the last two years Government ministers were forced to directly intervene in order to free up more resources.

“Unite’s pay claim is for £1.60 per hour or 7 per cent, whichever is greater. We believe this can be afforded and it is fair. Industrial unrest is on the cards again because Cosla and the Scottish Government have not learned from their mistakes. Both have a clear choice – make our members a fair and fully funded offer or the blame for any industrial unrest will lie at your doorstep.”

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A Cosla spokesman said: “Councils set their budgets individually, with many only able to budget for a 2 per cent increase in the pay bill, given the full range of pressures they are dealing with. Taking account of what is essentially a ‘flat cash’ settlement from Scottish Government, any decision on a pay offer will be informed by what is affordable and the impact it has on services and communities.”



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