Firefighters clash with Labour

As this issue of FRFI goes to press, the Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU) has completed two national strikes, the first lasting two days and the second eight days. It has now suspended strike action pending talks with ACAS. This is the first time the FBU has launched industrial action since its first national strike in 1977-8 which lasted nine weeks. This year over 87% of FBU members voted for strike action in support of a pay rise and against government plans, called ‘modernisation’, that would lead to massive job losses. The government is insisting that ‘modernisation’ must accompany any pay rise above a miserable 4%.

In April the FBU signalled that it was pulling out of the no-strike pay deal which it signed up to in 1978, because firefighters’ pay has not kept up with other sectors. A qualified firefighter on £412 a week (£21,531 a year) after four years has to wait another 15 years, without promotion, to get a £19 a week increase. The FBU is asking for a £30,000 wage for full-time trained firefighters and a new pay formula to keep these rates in future.

The Labour government has entrenched itself in opposition to the firefighters. Following the debacle which accompanied the failure of last minute talks on 22 November, any pretence that it is not the employer has ceased: this Labour government is actively preventing a settlement of the strike. For the first time since the miners’ strike in 1984/5, the British government is attempting to defeat a section of the organised working class movement for ideological reasons. It claims that the economy cannot afford the firefighters’ claim and that other sections of workers will want the same, but they have had no hesitation in awarding massive tax breaks to big corporations, turning a blind eye to executive pay-offs, and awarding themselves, as MPs, a more than 40% rise last year. Up to now the chief victims of Labour's cost-cutting and vilification have been the very poor, single mothers, working class youth and asylum seekers. The Blair government is now alarmed by the appearance of a new set of trade union leaders who are sceptical about the Labour Party's relationship with the trade union movement. Some unions have withdrawn from the political levy on the grounds that Labour no longer has a special relationship, and Blair has described Andy Gilchrist, FBU leader, as a 'Scargillite'. Whether this new generation will really challenge Labour Party treachery to the working class, is yet to be seen.

In reality New Labour has some desperate problems. Both factions of the government have no choice but to break the strike. Blair may praise the army for its efficiency in putting out small fires with antique equipment, but it will only take one major fire or accident which threatens lives to prove the lie. Very shortly he will need these 19,000 troops to fulfil his promises to Bush. Gordon Brown, despite all the prudence, has managed to drive the country into massive debt and the future does not look rosy. He is absolutely determined to stop the firefighters for economic reasons, but has no problems about salting away £1 billion to bomb men, women and children in Iraq.

The media have, as usual, rushed to the side of the government. The Sun spewed venom calling the firefighters ‘Saddam’s stooges’ and ‘doing Osama bin Laden’s job’. News reporting has been blatantly biased against the strikers so much so that the FBU has called for a boycott of Murdoch's BSkyB because of the lies being spread by Sky News. There can be no doubt that the full array of dirty tricks is being prepared against the strike, but despite this, public support for the strike has remained high.

In the wake of the first eight-day strike, Labour has intensified its attack on the strikers – all hands ‘on-message’. On 28 November Minister of Health Alan Milburn made much of the ‘modernisation’ plans included in the 16% pay offer made to health workers. Support workers will, for example, be able to give injections, which are traditionally done by nurses. Nurses, in turn, will be able to prescribe drugs, currently a task reserved for doctors. But all the unions involved have pointed out that this pay deal was under negotiation for three years. Milburn’s ‘offer’ was timed and designed above all to undermine the firefighters. The government is intent on suggesting that while health workers are willing to accept reforms, the firefighters are not. The FBU answers:

‘We no longer, as the army is currently doing, just fight fires outside buildings but take great risks in fighting the spread of fires internally too. We no longer just use crowbars and hacksaws to deal with road traffic accidents, as the army is currently doing, but complex specialist equipment. We have also taken on specialist activities such as offshore fire fighting, line rescue, animal rescue, heavy rescue. Many firefighters now provide trauma care and oxygen…
‘But the government does not want to recognise this. Even though it says it believes pro-active firefighting is the future. Even though by taking on new responsibilities we have dramatically cut the amount of death, injury and damage to property.
‘Milburn’s offer to health workers also includes a standard working week of 37.5 hours. Contrast that with the government’s determination that firefighters, who already do a 42-hour week, do overtime, adding to our long hours…
‘Moreover, as government ministers know only too well, this deal is a rarity among a string of above-inflation multi-year public sector pay deals signed over the past couple of years – and currently in the works – that have included few significant changes to working practices.
‘Scottish teachers, Scottish prison staff and workers at the Forestry Commission, for example have received close to or more than 20% and the only major strings attached are a reduction in the working week – not an increase. And none of these deals have called for a cut in the workforce, which is what the government wants to do to the Fire Service to the tune of 15,000 jobs.’

On 29 November the government made it clear that no new money is available for the Fire Service and that any modernisation must be funded by cuts in fire cover. Andy Gilchrist was right to predict that the Labour government is determined to cut jobs in the Fire Service arguing ‘that the level of cuts that the government is talking about would be equivalent to closing all fire stations in the Greater London area or closing the Fire Service in Scotland’.

We must do away with this myth that demands ‘restraint’ and ‘austerity’ for the workers while executives, MPs and the wealthy help themselves to massive increases and bonuses. The firefighters’ demands are not excessive; they are just and deserve support in their determination to challenge this Labour government.

The FBU and TUC have called a demonstration on 7 December in central London in support of the claim.

Ed Ralph, Jane Bennett and Michael MacGregor

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003


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