“THIS is not a strike against the council or the health board: it’s against Cameron, Osborne and the obnoxious Gove, and it is for the protection of public services in this country for generations to come.”
So said John McLaren, a health visitor from Galashiels, who joined hundreds of his colleagues – members of the trade unions Unite and Unison – on shift-system picket lines at the Borders General Hospital and at NHS Borders HQ at Newstead yesterday.
The lack of attrition between the health strikers and their local employers was evident at the latter location where NHS Borders chief executive Calum Campbell did not demur when pickets were supplied from inside with coffee on a bitterly cold day.
There was only one ripple of acrimony as Mr Campbell failed to dissuade Tony Trench, Unite’s regional organiser, from quietly convincing the Royal Mail delivery driver not to enter the building with the day’s mail.
Mr Campbell told us later: “We recognise the right of staff members to take strike action and we have worked in partnership with our union colleagues to develop contingency plans to ensure the ongoing delivery of essential services and safe staffing levels so there is no adverse impact on vulnerable patients.”
Mr McLaren reciprocated, praising health board management for their “understanding if not overt support” for the national day of action, called by the main public service unions to protest against the Westminster coalition’s plans to change pension schemes.
The upshot for health services yesterday was that all outpatient clinic appointments were cancelled, with the exception of those for patients deemed clinically urgent or those on cancer pathways.
All non-urgent elective inpatient operations and a total of 180 outpatient appointments and 15 inpatient/day case procedures were called off.
“Safe service levels operated throughout the day at the BGH to allow emergency and essential services, including A & E, to run effectively,” said a spokesperson for NHS Borders. “Primary and community services also operated at safe service levels, providing urgent cover for adult and child protection issues, but day hospitals were closed and routine outpatient clinics cancelled. Some mental health outpatient appointments were cancelled.”
At the time of going to press, the spokesperson said it was difficult to quantify the number of staff who had taken strike action or assess the number of patients affected.
“However, all cancelled appointments will have to have these rescheduled and this is likely to have an impact on our waiting time targets.”
While the demeanour of health service pickets was outwardly cheerful, Irene Clark a hospital domestic, said the mood of the strikers was underpinned by anger, fuelled, she claimed by education minister Michael Gove who, the previous day, had blamed the action on “militants ... itching for a fight”.
“We know a lot of people, on low pay already frozen for two years and facing a further 3.2 per cent cut because of an increased pension contribution, simply could not afford to lose a day’s pay,” she told us.
“We have, however, been heartened today by the support of the public who believe, like us, that this is the thin end of the wedge from a government idealogically opposed to the public sector with the ultimate goal, which will be disastrous for staff and patients, of privatisation. So it’s not just about today’s staff, it’s very much about future generations of Borderers.”
As we reported last week, Scottish Borders Council, the region’s largest employer, decided last Tuesday that all 74 schools should close yesterday.
This appeared to be vindicated with 1,200 teachers, mostly members of the EIS union, withdrawing their labour. This equates to 78 per cent of the total teaching establishment. More than 400 non-teaching staff (about 45 per cent) also struck. Like Mr Campbell, SBC leader Councillor David Parker acknowledged the co-operation of the unions in the run-up to yesterday.
“In preparation for the strike, the council received very good co-operation from the unions locally to ensure services were kept running and, without doubt, this helped us to maintain services today,” he told us.
The joint undertaking to protect essential services was reflected in the number of council staff joining the strike.
In social work, 68 out of 1,400 staff stayed away, while in the large environment and infrastructure department, 10 manual and 13 office workers, out of an establishment of more than 900, took part in the stoppage.
As a result, all bin collections scheduled for yesterday went ahead. Of the 400-strong white collar workforce in IT, finance and the chief executive’s department, only 28 joined the strike.
Based on the figures supplied and estimated respectively by the council and health board, it appears that more than 2,000 members of the public sector – which accounts for some 34 per cent of the region’s working population – joined the strike.
“Given that the Borders does not have a history of striking and that many on frozen low pay could simply not afford to take time off, I think the response has been remarkable,” said Mr Trench. “There has been a lot of alarmist nonsense about the cost to the Borders economy of closing schools, but the fact is local employers have acknowledged our responsible and reasonable attitude to this day of action which has been planned for many weeks.
“They and those who chose to work will also lose out if this pension disgrace, along with Osborne’s plans to cap pay and abandon national pay deals, is allowed to go ahead.”
The decision to close all schools was, however, criticised by Councillor Nicholas Watson, leader of the Borders Party.
“The blanket closure of schools was an unacceptable response to this strike,” he told us yesterday. “I don’t think the council realises the damage this does to businesses and workers across the region. If you are a working parent and have to take time off to look after the kids, that costs money to you, your employer and your business.
“Not all our teachers are off today and the school buildings are still there and there are volunteers aplenty. The decision on closure should have been taken on a school-by-school basis depending on the availability of staff and volunteers.
“I cannot believe every school, particularly smaller ones, could not have made some sort of arrangement to stay open.”
But Mr Watson’s suggestion was rubbished by Mr Parker.
“The safety and welfare of pupils is always paramount,” said Mr Parker. “The decision to close all schools was made after risk assessments were carried out by senior education staff and head teachers at every school.
“It would have been irresponsible to have children turning up without teachers there to teach them and staff to guarantee their safety.
“From the figures [of striking teachers and other school staff] today, I have no doubt we made the correct decision.
“It was simply not an option to replace qualified teachers with volunteers for a number of reasons, including insurance requirements and security checks.”