Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/277/24483
Support the firefighters
AS WE go to press, firefighters are starting their first national strike since 1977. Workers in every area will want to see the firefighters win.
The Bain report has angered firefighters and shown the need for a united battle by public sector workers for a living wage and against service cuts.
As the interviews below show, Socialist Party branches have already forged important links with the firefighters, to lend support to the strike.
"The government don't want to pay us"
STEVE WOOTON, Bristol, spoke to Phil Jordan, South West FBU regional chair.
"Resolutions have been going to conference for years on pay and the employers have been trying to attack our conditions of service. Over the last ten years we've spent most of our time fighting cuts and in the last five or six years defending against attacks on our conditions of service.
We've just had enough - we're where we were in 1977 - firefighters claiming free school meals for the kids, free milk. We don't think it's right for the type of job that we do.
We've had an overtime ban since the mid 1970s to defend full-time jobs. We've also banned 'full-time retained', which is where a full time firefighter in his or her days off can be a part-time firefighter. So approximately 20,000 full-time jobs have been created, which is what successful trade unionism is all about.
We don't see the Bain review as independent. The government don't want to pay us. Nick Raynsford said they would look at the report sympathetically, only for Gordon Brown to say that there is no money available and that they wouldn't pay an inflation-busting increase.
Our understanding is that the prison officers went to a similar review which recommended a 20% rise. The government wouldn't pay but imposed the review's changes in terms and conditions.
Looking back to 1977 there is one main difference. This time the TUC has supported us from the start. But we may end up fighting on our own. And the FBU is capable of doing that with an 87% vote in favour on an 83% turnout.
The FBU is adamant that we retain the right to strike. Fire fighters and control staff have genuine concerns about safety. To be honest we are dreading strike action. But if we don't, the government and employers just try to keep our pay as low as possible.
Labour fear that other public sector workers will want the same as us. But these are dedicated workers being blackmailed to staying on low pay.
If we get 40% in a pay review they will not pay us but if they get 40% they award it to themselves quicker than you can blink.
I think trade unionists must regain their position in the Labour Party. It was the unions that created it as our political voice in parliament. Having said that at some stage it will lose our support.
I'm seriously considering my membership, as are other firefighters. The last dispute was also under a Labour government. There will be serious strain on the link with Labour but whatever the union does, it will be debated at our conference next May."
Bain's 'modernisation' plans
PROFESSOR GEORGE Bain, previously Britain's highest-paid academic and director of Canada Life Assurance, thinks firefighters' pay is OK as it is.
As he says: "Even allowing for the risks and dangers of the service, firefighters compare well with similar jobs in the public and private sectors...
"When holidays, pension arrangements and job security are taken into account, they are even better placed. This conclusion is borne out by the recruitment and retention figures, which show large numbers of applicants for each fire service vacancy."
Bain, formerly a university vice-chancellor on £200,000 a year, thinks he's fully qualified to judge that the technically demanding, dangerous job of a firefighter is worth less than a tenth of his magnificent contribution to humanity!
Bain's proposal, for an 11% increase in two stages, dependent on firefighters accepting a far-reaching 'modernisation' package has rightly been described as 'insulting and derisory' by the FBU.
The massive majority in the strike ballot shows firefighters' determination to defend jobs, their hard-won working conditions and to fight for a living wage.
Every other public sector worker will recognise Bain's call for 'reforms' and 'efficiency savings'. And workers in the ambulance service will look with horror at Bain's proposals for joint services and joint control rooms, including training 'fire staff' as paramedics.
Attacking pay and conditions
MIKE FORSTER and Jackie Grunsell spoke to Paul, Howard and other firefighters from Huddersfield fire station.
"Personally I didn't vote for strike action" said one, "but the mood is strong, so even if we don't agree with striking, everyone will be out. There will be no breaking of ranks."
"At first I thought the 40% claim was a lot until I started to compare us with other workers. Police, nurses and teachers earn more than us - not that we begrudge them it - and MPs gave themselves a huge 40% pay rise.
"In fact if all public sector workers' pay was linked to MPs' pay rises there would be no need for disputes. Except, if all MPs struck, no-one would notice."
"The employers are talking about modernisation. They want flexible working, part-time staff to replace full-time staff, a cut in our leave and engines based outside city centre areas so stretching the service.
"They want to extend the pension qualification service from 30 to 35 years and they plan fewer ranks to lower the pay bill and instead offer incentives to firefighters to take on extra responsibilities, introducing divisions within our ranks. It's a huge attack on our pay and conditions.
"Not only that, we have taken on more responsibilities, like visiting people in their homes, fitting smoke detectors, doing school visits, etc. All this has seen a decrease in home fire fatalities, so we now get our budget cut because there are fewer fires!
"The FBU has maintained a strong position for us over the last few years, but we've fallen behind in the wages league. Striking is our last resort and we are up against the masters of spin, but the public need and want the best from our service. Everyone will stay out until we get a settlement.
"The Defence Ministry can't run a war and maintain emergency services. The army can come and take our fire engines but they won't know how to use them! This strike is down to who's got the most nerve."
A strong strike mandate
"SO FAR the talks haven't dealt with the main issue of our claim for a living wage - £30k. So although the other issues that have been discussed, there is no real decision until the £30k pay claim is won.
We have shown we are reasonable but we want the talks to get us the full settlement.
Many of us are shocked we haven't been out on strike yet but the mandate for strike action is as strong as it was when we voted a month ago.
The public support has been really good. We had a National Union of Teachers (NUT) rep here the other day to offer support and we've have had many other people knocking on the door offering support and asking if we need any help."
Productivity up 55%
"ACCORDING TO the evidence submitted by the employers' side to the Bain Inquiry into the fire service, firefighters' productivity has improved by 55% over the last decade.
This compares with a figure of only 19.5% for the economy as a whole (Office for National Statistics).
It appears that the union has been right all along in saying that it has taken modernisation on board and that the firefighters' well-researched claim for £30,000 per annum is already underpinned by achieved efficiency improvements as well as by public appreciation of the job they do on behalf of us all."
Prof. Jonathan Michie, Birkbeck college, University of London, writing in The Independent
In The Socialist 15 November 2002: