Union warning of health service strikes

UNION leaders last night warned of strike action by nurses and hospital workers that could see the cancellation of hundreds of non-emergency operations, as the bitter dispute over public-sector pensions escalates.

Unison members are growing increasingly angry over the UK government’s so-called “pensions tax” which requires some public-sector workers, including NHS employees, to increase contributions to their pension funds, leaders said.

The strike threat from health workers follows protests by firefighters, backed by police, this week and a vote in favour of industrial action by Scotland’s largest teaching union over changes to their pensions.

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NHS employees across the country will see a real-terms drop in their pay packets at the beginning of the new financial year next month as a result of the rising pension contributions which are being phased in over three years.

Unison has been in talks with both the UK and Scottish governments over the contributions issue but talks have now ended. The union remains in dispute with the two administrations and argues that the Scottish Government is not doing enough to relieve the extra financial burden imposed on its members.

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The issue is set to come to a head when the organisation, which has 150,000 members in Scotland, meets for its Scottish conference in Glasgow on 12 April.

Last night, the chairman of the Unison health committee, Tam Waterson, warned it was highly likely that industrial action would be on the agenda.

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“I think they will go for industrial action,” Mr Waterson said. “Feelings are running high. We believe that when our members see the difference in their pay packets, there may be feelings for industrial action.”

He said members would not consider an “all-out” strike but that their response would be similar to action taken last year when the Lothian, Ayrshire and Arran, Greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire NHS boards were targeted. One of the areas hit was a decontamination unit at Ayrshire Central Hospital in Irvine, which sterilises surgical instruments and medical devices.

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Mr Waterson claimed that 250 elective operations were cancelled as a result of the action.

“We are quite clear we would never, ever endanger patient safety and the operations that were cancelled were all elective operations.

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“But it is getting the message out that this isn’t public-sector workers being greedy. The average NHS pension for a male is £5,700 and for a female it is £3,800 a year. It is not exactly gold-plated.”

Looking ahead to next month’s meeting, Mr Waterson said: “I believe that when the members see again a drop in their wages, there will be pressure on us to re-enact industrial action and to push the Scottish Government not to increase contributions next year.”

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He added: “There is an extra 1.9 per cent tax on your pension at the same time we are getting a 1 per cent pay increase. That’s the first increase we’ve had for three years. But in real terms we are about 9 to 10 per cent down in wages, because of the pension tax.”

Although the extra contributions have been imposed by Westminster, some aspects of pensions law are devolved to Holyrood. Unison argues the Scottish Government should do more to mitigate the financial burden caused by the legislation.

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The discontent of health workers follows protests outside the Scottish Parliament this week by angry firefighters, who are also threatening strike action over their pensions. Firefighters are facing a new arrangement that could see them pay more into their pensions and their retirement age increase from 55 to 60.

Their demonstration at Holyrood was backed by the Scottish Police Federation, who are also angered that police officers are to be affected by the legislation devised at Westminster and passed by the Scottish Parliament. The federation wants control of pensions to be fully devolved to Holyrood.

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The Fire Brigades Union has argued that SNP ministers have the power to refuse Westminster’s pension reforms. The reforms were also behind this week’s news that Scotland’s teachers are set to hold only their second national walkout in 30 years.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have repeatedly declared our opposition to the UK government ’s policy of increasing employee contributions to public-service pensions in this way and at this time.

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“However, the UK government has made it clear that they will reduce the Scottish budget by £100 million for 2013-14 alone if we do not implement the increases to the NHS, teachers’, police and fire schemes in Scotland. That is too great a burden to pass on to communities.”