The planned national industrial action by the firefighters is the first for 25 years. It coincides with an increasing radicalisation in the union movement, which is a culmination of years of bitterness and resentment built up by the attacks on the wages and conditions of workers in general, and in the public sector in particular. The FBU is playing a leading role in the struggle for better wages in the public sector.
On September 2 protesting firefighters descended upon Westminster, in an action timed to coincide with pay discussions between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the local employers' committee in the National Joint Council. There were 5,000 firefighters present, that is 10% of the total workforce. Leaders from other unions were there as a mark of solidarity. In Scotland the local brigades staged a work to rule, only answering emergency calls.
The firefighters are calling for an increase of 40% which would bring wages up to the figure of £30,000 a year, for firefighters and control room staff, who receive only 92% of a firefighter's wage. They are also demanding that the same proportional increase be given to part-time (retained) staff, who are currently paid only a £36.40 a week retaining fee, and then a much lower hourly rate than their colleagues, this in spite of the fact that they must be on call 120 hours a week.
Socialist Appeal totally supports the firefighters in their action. Over the last period they have been pushed into action by successive governments who want public services on the cheap and have put thumbscrews on the firefighters along with other public sector staff.
The last national strike of firefighters was in 1977; it forced the employers to link their wages to those of a skilled manual worker, which gave them a relatively good settlement. However, over the years they have fallen behind, and they now earn 20% below the national average, while the average wage has increased by an average 384% since 1979, this sector has increased by only 300%. And what a scandal it is that these people who risk their lives every day are paid £21,000 (the same as the manager in your local McDonalds) after years of training and experience.
It just shows how much the government values their contribution. If there was a terrorist attack in Britain tomorrow the politicians would cry their crocodile tears, and praise the service of those who risked their lives, but they would cry out even louder when the firefighters (as they have in the USA) asked for wages to match the sacrifice they had made. The British public already know of the sacrifice these workers make; that is why they overwhelmingly support the firefighters. This support would extend to industrial action by both ASLEF and the RMT who have said if the firefighters strike they will close the London Underground for the safety of the workers and the passengers. The channel tunnel will have to close, the FA have said that football matches will be called off, and who knows what else! This just shows that nothing can function safely without the firefighters. The government's 900 "Green Goddess" tenders, poised to crawl across Britain in the event of a strike, are a dangerous joke. They have a top speed of 35mph, and they are made of wood!
Firefighters' wages have fallen to such a low rate that some of those with young families are now forced to claim housing benefit, and working families tax credit just to make ends meet. At the beginning of the 21st century in a rich country, this is the situation that skilled workers find themselves in. It was reported in the press that out of 56 firefighters based in Brentwood, only 4 live in the local area, and some of those who travel in live 90 miles away. This is not the exception, especially in the South East where public servants and other low paid workers are being priced out of the housing market.
At the same time as wages have been falling the nature of the job has changed. They still have the dangerous job of entering burning buildings and risking their own lives pulling out survivors, but now also have to deal with all sorts of situations, from chemical spillages to cliff-top rescues, car accidents to severe flooding. This requires not only an enormous technical knowledge, and ability to use a wide range of specialised equipment; fire fighters have to be paramedics, counsellors, and rock climbers all rolled into one. These tasks, often called "Special Services", make up 25% of the workload. If they had a certificate for all the things they are qualified to do they would be paid a fortune in industry.
At the same time as the increase in specialisation the workload has shot up, during the period from 1981-99, there has been a 80% increase in the number of call-outs, this has been paralleled by a 6% increase in staffing levels. In addition to this, there has been a massive jump in government-imposed paperwork and bureaucracy, for which no extra allocation has been made in the budget. And in spite of what you might expect if you had been listening to ministers, the government's "Best Value" initiative, has not improved the funding situation; the service is facing a shortfall of £156m, or 10% for 2001-02.
The watchword for the Blair government at the moment is "modernisation". The FBU has always supported the modernisation of the fire service because it is in the interests of their members and the public who they serve. What worker would oppose modernisation, which will make the job easier, safer and at the end of the day improve the quality of the product? However "modernisation" is one of these words, which the politicians love because it has more than one meaning: there are two types of modernisation. As Andy Gilchrist has said: "For the employers, modernisation means more flexibility, more cost-cutting, more half-baked schemes such as firefighters being trained as paramedics to avoid the costs of a properly funded ambulance service."
The drive towards modernisation has had the effect of placing greater workload and stress on the minds and shoulders of the workers. Most firefighters suffer back problems within a few years of joining as a result of the heavy lifting they have to do in the course of duty. Compensation claims reached £5.7m last year and there are only 50,000 firefighters in the UK, so that gives a graphic picture of the numbers of injuries.
So firefighters are doing very difficult, life-threatening jobs, they have seen the job become more specialised, heavier workloads, and greater levels of personal injury and stress over the last 20 years. Are they not then worth £30,000 a year?
The union has gone through the official negotiating procedure with the employers, at the first meeting of the National Joint Council (NJC) the local employers seemed sympathetic to the firefighters, they promised a suitable pay increase. The firefighters thought they might get the pay rise they needed without having to take action, however the early promises of the employers gave way to nothing. The employers quickly reneged on their earlier promises, and refused to make any offer in subsequent meetings. The employers suggested setting up an independent enquiry on wages, and linking any increase with "modernisation" and changes in working practise in the fire service. The FBU rejected this, because it is the remit of the NJC, not an "independent" committee with limited knowledge on how the service works, to determine how the service should be run. The union demanded a good rise and offered to take joint action with the local employers in order to force the government to grant the demands.
Meeting has followed meeting but with no progress - the employers have not been prepared to negotiate, they have been mucking about and stalling for months The union decided to recall conference for an emergency meeting immediately after the TUC in order to discuss the situation, and take a ballot for strike action. The employers hurriedly tabled an offer of 4%, just to cover their backs; they cannot have expected this to cut any ice, after all what is 4% of not a lot?
The anger felt by members was intensified in the run-up to the emergency conference, and a week before the TUC conference began, as it emerged from the local employers that just a few months earlier the government had blocked a proposed offer of a 15% rise planned for the meeting of the employers and the union on July 2. Despite their claims that they did not want to get involved, the government had been active behind the scenes in derailing a proposal from the employers for a substantial rise, which would have taken the firefighters up to £25,000 a year, while this falls short of what the firefighters want and deserve, it would have strengthened their negotiating position, and made it clear that the employers were willing to negotiate. It is clear that the employers were frightened by the prospect of a national strike so they were going to make the offer to try to head off action. However the government has its head in the clouds, it is out if touch, and not willing to negotiate; they do not want a reasonable settlement. Blair has even said that a 40% claim would cause "terrible damage" to the economy, and has made plain that he is willing to risk a national strike, rather than pay workers what they deserve. It is a shame these politicians do not have the same concerns about the economy when awarding themselves huge pay rises (a basic MP's salary is £55,000+), or accept donations from Enron!
The mood at the special emergency conference on September 12 was electric, all 250 delegates mandated from their branches (voting on behalf of 51,849) voted unanimously in favour of strike action. At the end of the conference the delegates jumped to their feet and cheered. Throughout the conference members launched scathing attacks on the government, who have the money to spend on weapons and war but not on wages to improve the living standards of those who do the real job of running society. To Blair's accusation that the firefighters were irresponsible in threatening to undermine the economy through their actions, Andy Gilchrist pointed out that the adventures of Tony Blair with the Americans in Afghanistan and the Middle East were costing Britain far more and were more likely to cause economic catastrophe. The cost of the firefighters' claim has been put at £250 million - or if you believe the government's figure, £450 million - either way this pales into insignificance if you look at the £20 billion spent on inflicting misery in Afghanistan, or the £4.5 billion the treasury says it will cost to even begin killing workers in Iraq. This explodes the myth that Britain cannot afford decent wages for workers in the public sector; every other advanced country in Europe pays higher wages for public sector workers. When you consider for a minute that the total fire service budget is £1.53 billion, and that fire damage alone causes £6.1 billion damage each year, there is a case for massive investment in the fire service to improve efficiency still further, which would in effect be free.
The FBU has negotiated with the employers, but at the end of the day the employers are not prepared to pay what the members want, and deserve. The firefighters are not going to be ignored or have their interests trampled over. The Labour government does not want to pay a reasonable increase to the firefighters for fear that it will open the floodgates to similar claims by other public sector workers. Well why should they not put in these claims? The Tories offered nothing but attacks on the public sector and now Labour under the Blairites offer the same. The government condemns the firefighters as they condemn all strike action. Nick Raynsford, the local government minister has said it "would be an unnecessary and deeply damaging dispute that could put peoples lives at risk." But what hypocrisy from the government who have risked the lives of millions by consistently underfunding the fire service, by allowing the scandal of the private railways to continue, and allowed conditions to fester in the middle East laying the basis for more terrorist attacks. Now they refuse to pay workers what they have earned. They are like little children who think the world is so unfair, and do not see that they have brought the situation on themselves. Now they are talking of ruling a strike in the fire service illegal, but all their manoeuvres will only add fire to the flames. The firefighters will fight for what they deserve. They will be backed by workers across the country. For £30k now! Victory to the firefighters!