Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/425/4976
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack speaks to the socialist
Firefighters prepare to strike against pensions' robbery
Matt Wrack was elected general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in May 2005 as a left-wing challenger to the incumbent general secretary Andy Gilchrist.
Matt spoke to the socialist about the battle the union is now undertaking to defend its members' pension scheme and how the union is developing.
Matt Wrack speaks at the Socialist Party's Socialism 2005
"WE'VE BEEN discussing pensions for about a year with the government. They are proposing a new scheme for new entrants from April 2006 and changes to the existing scheme for new members. We also have 1,500 members in the local government scheme - emergency fire control centre workers - who face the same changes as other local government workers.
We have reached the stage where the negotiations haven't made any real progress and the FBU executive council therefore considered what action to take. Our conference policy is that if there are any proposed detrimental changes to our pension scheme our conference will be recalled to discuss it. Our recall conference meets in Southport on 16 February.
A resolution is now being discussed by FBU members that would launch a ballot for strike action. It has given FBU members extra confidence that other workers in local government are also preparing to ballot for strike action.
Undoubtedly, it's important that, if at all possible, we co-ordinate our campaign with other trade unions, that is clearly part of our policy and part of the resolution being put to our members. Just announcing a ballot has given a boost to our members at meetings I have attended recently.
Our other national priority is the threat of regional fire control centres. Each individual fire service now has its own control centre but now the government plans to regionalise them. This will mean a loss of jobs and for the public it will mean a poorer service. We are now involved in a national campaign to try and stop it (see article below).
We have put counter-proposals which are being discussed in the service at present.
Also, at a local level there is an ongoing threat to jobs and fire cover, which is tied up in all the jargon about 'modernisation' of the fire service. What this means is attempts to get rid of fire engines and close fire stations or a combination of the two.
For example, there are attempts being made to reduce cover at night-time. On the one hand this means the public get a worse service with less firefighters and engines available. For our members it means the employers come along and try to change or impose shifts - making for unworkable and unfriendly shifts.
Our union went through a big struggle a few years ago and clearly a number of employers and chief fire officers think the union is on the back foot and beaten. But, since 2003, we've already had two local brigades voting for strike action in Suffolk and the West Midlands, which in terms of following a national dispute is quite quick.
We've also had a number of other ballots for action short of a strike. So the FBU is still there; still representing its members.
We now have a number of priorities. We need to re-engage with the members and develop strategies to deal with the new environment. There has been a certain shift away from national bargaining to localised bargaining on certain issues, such as shifts for example. So we need to make sure we've got training in place for local officials to take these matters up.
We also need to pay attention to developing a new layer of activists within the FBU for the future. The FBU has always been at the heart of the fire service and we want to ensure it remains so.
I still see myself as an activist but one who happens to be in the general secretary's position. Obviously, it gives you a different outlook and you do see some things from a different perspective.
One thing I always make clear to people is that they need to make sure they have well-organised branches and committees to make sure whoever is in the leadership has the structures that can control that leadership - whether it's me or anyone else.
I don't take the full salary of the FBU general secretary; though I don't make a great deal of it. I've opened up a separate account and a portion of my wages goes into a campaign fund which gives donations to labour movement causes, campaigns and strikes.
I eventually chose to publicise this because the Sun were about to launch an attack on me concerning certain 'internal FBU battles' related to finance. Whilst some other members still don't quite understand why I do it a lot of members think it's a welcome change to see a general secretary not taking the full amount.
Firefighters give thumbs down to regional control centres
ONLY 3% of fire service personnel surveyed support government plans to shut emergency fire controls and move to a regional-only service according to a new poll.
Firefighters, officers, managers and control staff do not believe the new controls will improve either firefighter safety or the response to incidents.
The poll asked three key questions about the plans to close every fire brigade's emergency fire control and move to regional control rooms.
Asked if they thought regional control rooms would improve firefighters' safety, 95% said NO and only 2% said YES.
When further asked if they believed such a move will improve fire service response to incidents, 95% said NO and 3% said YES.
And finally, when asked if they thought the government should proceed with its plan to move to regional controls, 94% said NO.
Matt Wrack said:
"The poll findings are a body blow for these plans. In some regions you could not fill a phonebox with those who support them.
"Those who really know the fire service and what these proposals mean have given them a massive thumbs down. Those who will have to deal with the consequences of these proposals clearly have little confidence in them."
In The Socialist 2 February 2006: