Uncertainty over school closures as GMB and Unite suspend strike action

Two trade unions involved in negotiations accept pay offer but Unison members still set to walk out next week.

There is uncertainty about how many schools will close across Scotland next week after trade unions split on whether to accept an improved pay offer for council workers.

Three trade unions representing school staff – including cleaners and janitors – have been involved in pay negotiations with The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).

The largest union, Unison, said on Thursday that strikes will go ahead after rejecting the deal on the table.

But the other two unions involved – Unite and GMB – both said on Friday they were suspending strike action and urged members to accept the COSLA pay offer.

School staff were set to walk out for three days from Tuesday next week but members of the Unite and GMB unions are no longer taking strike action.

Unison members are still set to walk out in 24 out of Scotland’s 32 council areas, so it will be up to individual local authorities to decide if schools in their area can operate as normal.

It is a complex picture as council staff membership of trade unions varies from area-to-area.

For example, many council workers in cities like Glasgow and Dundee are represented by Unite, whereas GMB are the only union with a mandate in Falkirk.

North Lanarkshire Council said on Friday that all schools in their local authority area will be open next week.

Unite – ‘There’s money in the bank for our members’

Graham McNab, regional officer for Unite, told STV News: “Our committee met this morning and we had a frank discussion on it (the pay offer).

“This offer that was made could have been made five months ago by COSLA because they have not had a need to go to the Scottish Government for extra funding, so they have clearly had the money in front of them.

“We have been very clear for the past number of months that we were looking for a decent offer for our lowest paid workers, the same as it was last year, so we wanted them up to the £2,000 mark – this offer clearly demonstrates that.

“There’s money sitting in the bank for our members if we can get this deal agreed. We have taken this decision because of the ask and because of the offer, they match each other.

“We have decided to suspend all industrial action, to take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, to allow us to consult with our members.”

Cosla said its “significantly improved in-year offer” would mean workers on the Scottish local government living wage see an in-year uplift of about £2,000, or almost 10%.

The new offer represents a minimum wage increase of £2,006 for those on the Scottish Government’s living wage and a minimum increase of £1,929 for workers who are earning above the living wage.

The living wage of £10.85 would rise to £11.89 under the new offer, equivalent to a 9.6% increase.

Unite said its local government committee has recommended “acceptance” of the pay offer, which is estimated to cost roughly £580m.

The union will hold a ballot of its local government membership, which opens on September 26 and closes on October 17.

Unions split

Unite also branded a decision by fellow trade union Unison to continue with strike action across most of Scotland’s schools next week as “bizarre”.

A letter by the East Dunbartonshire Council branch advised its members to cross the picket line while industrial action by Unison gets under way on Tuesday.

The letter read: “Unfortunately our colleagues in Unison have taken the bizarre decision to continue with strike action while balloting their members.

“This pre-supposes that their members will follow their recommendation to reject the offer however if their members vote to accept then they will need to explain to those members why they lost three days pay and pension contributions.”

The local Unite branch said it would ask Unison to “re-consider” its position.

It added: “In the event that Unison continues with strike action next week our members should attend work as normal with their GMB colleagues, unfortunately, this could mean having to cross a picket line.

“If those on the picket line are unhappy about this then you should ask them why they are striking while their own union’s members may well be voting to accept the deal.”

A spokesperson for Unite distanced the union from the East Dunbartonshire branch’s comments.

“This is not official Unite guidance,” they said.

“Under no circumstances are we advising our members to cross the official picket lines of any trade union taking strike action.”

Unite members will no longer strike in Clackmannanshire, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Fife, Glasgow City, Inverclyde, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and Orkney councils.

Meanwhile, GMB members won’t strike in Aberdeen, Clackmannanshire, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, Falkirk, Glasgow, Orkney, Renfrewshire and South Ayrshire.

That doesn’t mean, however, that schools will remain open in all of those areas due to the Unison strike action.

Keir Greenaway, GMB Scotland senior organiser in public services, said: “It would be wrong to suggest this offer is not a clear improvement on those that came before it, especially for the lowest-paid workers.

“GMB is a trade union led by its members and it is absolutely right they are asked to decide on what is a significantly better offer.

“Cosla has itself highlighted how far it has advanced since April, which only begs the question why it took so many months to make an offer worth discussing with our members?

“We remain disappointed it took first the threat and then the looming reality of strike action in Scotland’s schools before we saw any sign of leadership from Cosla.

“Whatever our members decide, lessons should be learned from these needlessly protracted negotiations to ensure workers, parents and pupils do not endure similar uncertainty in future.”

With strikes still likely, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said: “What I would urge the Scottish Government to do is not be a bystander, be a participant, get around the table with Cosla, with the trade unions and thrash out a fair pay deal here.”

What is COSLA saying?

COSLA’s resources spokesperson councillor Katie Hagmann said: “I am heartened by today’s news that both Unite and the GMB will suspend next week’s strike action whilst they consult with their membership on the pay package that we currently have on the table.

“This is good news and I welcome the decision to suspend next week’s strike action by both the Unite and GMB trade unions.

“We have met every ask of our trade union colleagues throughout these negotiations and this best and final offer which will see every single local government worker receive an in-year pay rise of between six and almost 10 per cent was made on the basis that strikes would be suspended. I am pleased that these two trade unions have recognised this.

“We absolutely value all our local government workforce and throughout these negotiations council leaders have reiterated the value we place on the workforce and the work that they do.

“We are talking about a pay package worth over £430m, specifically targeted at the lower end of our workforce. A pay package which not only compares well to other sectors but recognises the cost-of-living pressures on our workforce and a pay package which would mean the lowest paid would see an in-year uplift of over £2,000, or just under 10%.

“I am pleased with today’s decision from Unite and the GMB because this is the best funding package that Scottish and local government can provide, and I would hope that their members accept the offer.”

The Scottish Government has been contacted for comment.

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