They plan to strike for a total of 48 days strung out over November, December and January. Five hundred frontline workers will be taking action, including wastewater operatives, water treatment and burst repair operatives, maintenance engineers, electricians and sewage tank drivers.
The size of the majority voting for industrial action gives some indication of just how fed up workers are with Scottish Water’s repeated attempts to bypass and undermine long-standing collective bargaining agreements, bouncing employees into accepting some divisive ‘reward system’ instead.
It is all the more galling that the directors who are so keen to drive down the workers’ wages are so generous when it comes to their own remuneration.
Unite leader Sharon Graham raised an interesting question with her remark that “Scottish Water has created this mess through their own arrogance and insatiable greed in the boardroom, despite it being a public body.”
For all that Scottish Water may be ‘public’ (having dodged Margaret Thatcher’s privatising broom in 1989), it still quacks like a corporate duck. And in fact, in 2005, the non-household market was opened up to private-sector competition, allowing private companies to bid for public water services.
On this basis, Anglian Water was able to secure government contracts to manage services for Scotland’s public bodies, further confusing matters.
The new CEO at Scottish Water, Alex Plant, took over in May this year, walking into an annual salary just shy of £300,000, £22,500 more than his predecessor, Douglas Millican.
Millican had left just in time to dodge the flak from the revelation that sewage had been dumped in Scottish waterways over 14,000 times in the last year of his tenure. Forty-seven million cubic metres of sewage got dumped in Scottish waters in 12 months, equal to the contents of nearly 19,000 Olympic swimming pools.
It is only now, now that the workers have been driven to strike in defence of their standard of living, that the company has suddenly woken up to the vital importance of the work its employees do, and the serious consequences that must follow any interruption in that work.
Scottish Water chief operating officer Peter Farrer said: “We will do all we can to ensure customers do not experience any disruption to their water supplies and that treatment of the country’s wastewater continues as usual, despite the industrial action. A reliable water source is vital for everyone. Maintaining public health and protecting the environment are our priorities [!] and it is the responsible course of action for us to have contingency plans ready.”
Rather than lecture strikers on their social responsibilities, let Scottish Water’s directors shoulder their own. Rather than plotting clever new ways of depressing workers’ pay and conditions and turbocharging their own, let them do the job they are paid for.
And rather than muddle on with this queasy mix of public and private, let the immediate demand be: a national plan for all of Britain’s waterworks, under public ownership.