What we think

London firefighters’ dispute: the fight is not over

Firefighters mount an FBU picket against the scabs employed by AssetCo, photo Suzanne Beishon

Firefighters mount an FBU picket against the scabs employed by AssetCo, photo Suzanne Beishon   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The London district committee of the firefighters’ union, the FBU, voted by 19 to 3 to postpone its strike action planned for 5 and 6 November.

The firefighters went into battle against a brutal boss determined to force through what they wanted, backed up by the government, Tory London Mayor and right-wing media, using strikebreaking methods reminiscent of the miners’ strike.

This decision to go back into talks with the employers recognises that the strikes had the desired effect of getting the management to make concessions, particularly on their threat to sack all 5,557 firefighters on 26 November.

Ian Leahair, FBU London executive member, wrote to the “NSSN and associated unions” to explain the situation (see below). He explains that the employers have now agreed to change their original hard-line position of demanding the introduction of equal 12-hour shifts on days and nights. This position could have led to the gradual reduction of fire cover in London during the night hours. At the moment the shifts are divided between 15 hours at night and 9 hours in the day.

The management have agreed that they will now talk about a shift pattern of 11 hours on nights and 13 hours on days, but, crucially, with no strings.

It is on this basis that the sacking threat has been postponed and the whole issue will be put to a “resolution advisory panel” on 16 November which will report on 26 January.

During the strike, the management’s use of scab company AssetCo suggests that plans to privatise more of the service are afoot. This poses a very serious threat to the service and the union.

Firefighters mount an FBU picket against the scabs employed by AssetCo, photo Suzanne Beishon

Firefighters mount an FBU picket against the scabs employed by AssetCo, photo Suzanne Beishon   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Papers like the Evening Standard and the Independent reported that it was the FBU which backed down (they get this from unnamed sources on the Tory-controlled London Fire Authority). Unfortunately the Socialist Worker also writes that it was “a mistake to call off the strikes”. But it is clear that the outcome is a truce, with the bosses being forced to make a partial retreat for the moment.

The FBU has been in many battles since the end of the 2002/2003 national fire strikes over pay. Up and down the UK regional fire authorities saw the end of that dispute as an opportunity to introduce new working practices detrimental to both the public and the firefighters themselves. Many areas have seen tremendous resistance but some authorities have managed to push through shift pattern changes.

When 2,500 FBU members marched through the capital in September against the threat of mass sackings of London firefighters, among them were groups from brigades from across the country. The FBU has a proud record of mobilising its members nationally to support individual regions.

Brian Coleman has ordered an inquiry into whether the London brigade ‘needs’ 27 of its fire engines proving FBU claims that cuts were at the heart of the recent dispute. Such a cut could result in up to 500 posts being axed.

Quoted on the BBC website Ben Sprung, of the FBU, said: “Coleman has denied our dispute had anything to do with cuts in the service for Londoners. This proves that has been the agenda all along. He [Coleman] seems willing to put his vendetta against firefighters above the safety of London.”

It is clear that the union has to convince its members nationally that they will have to stand together and not be picked off one by one again. This fight over shift patterns and mass sackings is not over, and is itself an early skirmish in the battles to come against massive public sector cuts.

A letter from Ian Leahair

To: NSSN and Associated Trade Unions
5 November 2010
Ian Leahair, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive council member for London, on picket line, photo Suzanne Beishon

Ian Leahair, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive council member for London, on picket line, photo Suzanne Beishon   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Fire Brigades Union and its members in London are overwhelmed by the many letters of support and solidarity received from trade unions affiliated to the NSSN and SERTUC, especially PCS, RMT, NUT, CWU and SERTUC, whilst the strike planned for the 5 and 6 November 2010 has been suspended, this in no way infers that the dispute has concluded.

In view of the media attention yesterday and the shambolic exploits of the chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) Councillor Brian Coleman, we feel that it is necessary to put the record straight as the media is clearly not prepared to portray the truth, but instead concentrates on the lies, spin and rhetoric that spill from the mouth of the Tory bully Coleman.

Contrary to the claims of Brian Coleman, the decision by the FBU in London to suspend strikes was based upon sound judgement and significant movement from management.

You will by now be aware of the claims made by the Fire Minister, the Mayor of London, the chair of the LFEPA and the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade (LFB), that the capital’s public would be safe on what is the busiest night of the year for the LFB.

The FBU and our members in London do not accept such claims and we believe that the contingency plans and use of inadequately trained AssetCo staff are neither sufficient nor adequate to ensure the safety of the public at this time.

To support our claims that the LFB was prepared to put the public at risk through this weekend, we have evaluated how the AssetCo staff performed during the previous two strike dates, whereby we witnessed AssetCo staff not capable of correctly using equipment with no understanding of how they should tackle a fire appropriately.

Further concerns arose in the driving abilities of those staff when three of our members including myself were injured on picket lines.

Since 31 October there have been three days of negotiations which failed to deliver a way forward, management maintained that their bottom line was 11/13 with strings and that they wanted the FBU to enter into arbitration on 5 November with the threat of mass sackings still scheduled to take place on 26 November 2010.

However in light of the above the FBU proposed to management they agree in writing:

  • That their bottom line is 11/13 with no strings.
  • That any decision on mass sackings would not take place on 18 November 2010.
  • That management agree to attend a Resolution Advisory Panel on 16 November 2010.

I am pleased to report that management gave a full written agreement to the above and therefore the London Regional Committee felt that this was enough to suspend the proposed strike action in order that the general public could enjoy both Diwali and the fireworks festivities, safe in the knowledge that, should they require attendance of the fire brigade, then the public would receive an attendance of professionally trained firefighters as opposed to a makeshift gaggle of inexperienced and poorly trained individuals.

Furthermore, we believe that we are now better placed to enter into arbitration on our terms and not the terms of the employer, we also believe that we will now not be entering such arbitration with a loaded gun against our heads.

More importantly, management’s written agreement to the above, also secures that our members will be able to be consulted fully on any recommendation that may be derived from such arbitration, without the threat of mass sackings on 18 November 2010.

Had management agreed to this position earlier then we would not have needed to take strike action, but clearly it has been our unity and strike action that has forced them to commit to such an agreement as outlined above.

Yours fraternally,
Ian Leahair,
Executive council member for London
Fire Brigades Union