700 Maritime and Coastguard Agency workers were out on strike today, the first in the agency's history.
The strike, in protest at pay levels that have lagged hugely behind other emergency services follows other recent action against public sector pay cuts in response to similar pay cuts (Pay 2007 archive). Centres across the country remained closed, including those in Solent, Brixham, Holyhead, Belfast and London.
The action by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has left around half centres nationally closed down – with those remaining open only operating with a skeleton staff. 80% of members voting in the ballot voted in favour of strike action on a turnout of nearly 70%. It follows action short of strike, which has been ongoing since last May, and follows an agreement in summer 2006, where management and unions agreed that a comparability study to examine pay levels in the Agency compared with other emergency and similar staff would be commissioned. When the study reported that pay levels lagged massively behind similar jobs elsewhere, management responded by simply dismissing it and declared that it was of no value in informing pay negotiations, and imposed yet another sub-inflation “pay rise”.
The pay offers the government has put forward are particularly galling – with starting salaries of just £12,097, and experienced staff being offered increases of just 1% - at t time when inflation is running at over 4%. These pay levels are hugely below equivalents in other emergency services – services which themselves struggle with low pay. At the bottom, Coastguard watch assistants (who actively participate in response to 999 calls) are only paid at the level of the minimum wage.
Historically, the Coastguard Agency has been low paying – a legacy of it’s origins where most workers would be recruited after finishing a career in the Navy – where the job would often be seen merely as a means of topping up a pension. While this did not make the low pay acceptable, the situation is now even worse, as the job is now hugely skilled – requiring the use of satellite tracking, radar and other skilled equipment that would be expected of a modern emergency service, and new recruits now are almost exclusively working the job as the sole income.