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Orkney: ‘School staff were left with no other option’ 

Publication: The Orkney News

From early years to secondary education, schools in Orkney temporarily shut their gates to students during the three-day strike action.

UNISON members of Orkney’s non-teaching school staff outside St Magnus Cathedral | Photo by Orkney News Ltd | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Most schools in Orkney were closed for three days, the 26th, 27th and 28th of September, as school staff members of the trade union UNISON took industrial action after rejecting the latest pay offer from Local Authority organisation COSLA.

From early years to secondary, schools closed their doors to children and young people as the three days of strike action took place.

UNISON Orkney Local Services Branch is Orkney’s largest trade union branch, with over 600 members. It represents a range of non-teaching staff crucial to the delivery of educational provision in the islands: office, catering, auxiliary, janitorial, early years, cleaning, and learning assistants employed in Orkney’s schools and early years facilities.

Striking is always a last resort, and with two unions, GMB and Unite, putting on hold their industrial action whilst they put the renewed offer to their members, UNISON pressed ahead with the three days.

UNISON Orkney Local Services Schools representative Shona Garson explained:

“UNISON have been campaigning tirelessly for a fair pay deal for all its members. Support workers within schools are among the lowest paid local government workers so this is a campaign dear to their hearts. Our members based in schools are not wanting to go on strike but when there is no other option left to us, we have risen to the cause and said enough is enough”.

Orkney’s non-teaching school staff held a short rally on the steps of St Magnus Cathedral on the 26th of September. Passing motorists tooted their support for the workers, who are mostly women and invaluable members of school teams.

COSLA  Resources Spokesperson Councillor Katie Hagmann said that their offer was the ‘best and final’ deal they would be bringing forward, but with no new money, this is coming at a cost to other services.

Councillor Hagmann said:

“I cannot stress enough the efforts that both Local and Scottish Government have gone to in relation to securing the funding to meet this ask.  Politicians and officers have worked tirelessly in partnership to review, reprioritise, restructure and reprofile money, ensuring the impact on our communities is minimised.  

“However, have no doubt tough decisions have been taken, and there will be delays to programmes and projects within communities to meet these pay demands.  

“No new money has been identified for this offer – it is the ultimate example of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ in finance terms. Strikes are too damaging to our children and young people, their families and our communities across Scotland for us not to have taken this action.”

In accepting this offer, local government workers would have a pay rise in 2023/2024 of between 6.05% and 9.59%, worth around £430m in a funding package agreement between Scottish and Local Government.

Unite’s local government committee has recommended ‘acceptance’ of the new COSLA pay offer and is holding a  ballot of its local government membership, which will close on 17th October.  The GMB trade union has also suspended its action whilst it puts the offer to its members.

Appearing before the Education, Children and Young People committee of the Scottish Parliament on 27th September, Cabinet Minister for Education and Skills Jenny Gilruith stated that although she was not involved in the negotiations of a dispute that had brought hundreds of schools across Scotland to be closed, that it was ‘not an education dispute’. She was hoping that there would be a solution to the impasse between COSLA and local authority workers. She confirmed that money would be ‘reprofiled’ to meet the financial needs of the pay offer.

It is the prospect of cuts to other local public services that prompted UNISON to continue with the strike days.

Service Conditions Officer for Unison Orkney Local Services Branch, Danny Oliver, said:

“Our members, particularly here in Orkney, view strike action as a last resort. We understand and share the frustration that parents and children feel over school closures; however, the Scottish Government and COSLA have left us with no other choice.

“To put forward a marginally improved offer after the deadline had passed, then tell us the Scottish Government is not putting in any new money and services, and jobs will be cut to pay for it is just something we could never accept. Several Orkney Islands Council service areas are experiencing a full-blown staffing crisis, and if real-term pay keeps falling year after year, that is only going to get worse.

“We need properly funded Council services that can meet the needs of Orkney’s communities and a pay settlement that addresses the cost of living crisis our members are facing”

Across Scotland, up to 21,000 UNISON members working in over 1,800 schools across 24 Scottish local authority areas took strike action over the three days.

UNISON Scotland head of local government Johanna Baxter said: 

“No one wishes to cause disruption for pupils and their parents, but school staff have left with no other option. The blame must be laid squarely at the door of COSLA and Scottish ministers.

“They should give school staff a decent pay rise, fund any increase properly and commit to a timetable for implementing a minimum rate of pay of £15 per hour for all local government workers. That would end the dispute.

“Anything less risks prolonging a dispute no one wants, cuts to already under-pressure services and school staff continuing to quit for pastures new, where the jobs are significantly better-paid.”

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