Firefighters dispute: It Didn’t Have To Be Like This

“THE FIREFIGHTERS’ decision yesterday to call off their long-running dispute marks a signal victory for ministers. The government has secured the guts of what it wanted: changes in working practices tied to a one-off bumper pay increase” (Financial Times 13/6/03)

Bill Mullins, Socialist Party trade union organiser

Delegates to the third special FBU conference this year voted by three to one to end the ten month-long dispute and accept the latest offer of 16% over the next two and half years.

This was primarily a result of a certain amount of weariness by some firefighters and a feeling that the dispute had to come to an end sooner or later.

Frustrations with how the dispute has been conducted by the leadership of the union, particularly Andy Gilchrist the general secretary, was also reflected in the shouts of “sell out” by some delegates.

The 1977 dispute, which ran for 13 weeks of an all-out strike, ended with fisticuffs on the beach at Bridlington, the home of the FBU national conference.

That it did not happen this time does not mean that there is not massive anger against the leadership of the union by many of the rank and file. At the conference, no delegate spoke in favour of the deal from the floor and some have called for Gilchrist’s resignation.

The Financial Times and other papers have commented that the FBU would have found it difficult to win in the face of ministers determination to face down their demands.

Andy Gilchrist at the conference said that that those who wanted to overcome the state with periodic strikes lived on a different planet and those who wanted an indefinite strike lived in a different universe. He then recommended the deal saying it was “the best settlement won by any group of public sector workers in this pay round”

Yet, within a few hours of the conference ending, John Prescott’s office announced that that they will still be pressing ahead with the Fire Service bill that will give him powers to impose changes and conditions on firefighters and fire stations. They need these powers “if local negotiations break down,” said one spokesman.

What this means is that despite all the rhetoric of Gilchrist, the deal in reality means that the buck has been passed down to local level when the employers begin their programme of wholesale jobs cuts, closure of fire stations and cut backs in the crewing of fire engines.

Some areas, such as London and Merseyside, have voted heavily against the deal whilst other areas think that they can live with it and fight back locally against the imposition of any cuts.

The nature of the deal that has been agreed means that the focus of strikes and other action, which will almost inevitably take place, will now be at a local rather than a national level.

Whilst it is true that the national union has a good record on coming to the aid of the local strikes, with national mobilisations and demonstrations backing firefighters engaged in local struggles such as Merseyside a few years ago, the whole idea of a national union is to achieve national action. This will be much more difficult as a result of this settlement.

The main danger now is that the government will pick off the less well-organised areas, and then turn on the stronger areas.


WITH AN 87% vote to take strike action the firefighters were in a strong position from the start. ‘Public opinion’ was with them (though this can be a two-edged sword as the union leadership seemed more interested at times in keeping ‘public opinion’ on their side by retreating in the face of hostile press publicity).

The dispute, quite correctly, was seen as the beginning of a widespread offensive by public-sector workers to claw back some of the losses they had suffered for years under various governments. That is why New Labour were so determined to face down the firefighters.

Offensive action soon became a defensive struggle to defend the gains of the past by firefighters, particularly the level of control they had through their union over issues such as overtime, staffing levels and the siting of fire stations themselves.

No other group of workers, except perhaps train drivers, had the confidence in themselves that the firefighters did, but it became clear that confidence would not be enough. The firefighters needed the active support of other groups of workers if they were to win considerable concessions.

The socialist explained that solidarity from other sections of workers was key to winning the dispute, and that would mean union leaders defying the anti-union laws. We raised the possibility early on in the dispute of uniting the public-sector strikes that were happening at the same time, involving local government workers and teachers, into a one-day public-sector pay strike.

When the government threatened to remove the right to strike altogether from the firefighters, then we again raised the demand of a one-day general strike of the whole trade union movement in defence of the democratic rights of the firefighters and of all workers.

However, the issue of solidarity action was never effectively raised. The London tube workers during the first two-day strike refused to work in their hundreds because of the safety issue. When they were threatened with disciplinary action if they did the same thing again, the RMT were too slow to back their members up.

The cancellation of so many of the planned strike days (29 in all compared to the actual 15 days the firefighters were on strike) served to undermine the confidence of other layers in the public sector that the FBU was serious about the action.

The firefighters’ strike was a major test of the new left union leaders and unfortunately they were found wanting. On the basis of their experiences during the dispute, many firefighters will now see the need for a democratic broad left organisation within the union that can fight for the kind of effective leadership that will be vital in the battles ahead.

The strings attached…

FBU GENERAL secretary claimed that the settlement is: “The best settlement won by any group of public sector workers this pay round, with fewer strings.” But the strings are tightly knotted round firefighters’ pay and conditions:

The pay deal is advertised as 16% but everything beyond the 4% rise from November 2002 is dependent on cuts and changes in working conditions, verified by the Audit Commission.

The second rise, averaging 7%, is based on a new pay structure which has not yet been agreed.

After the pay rises in the settlement, from 2005 there will be a new pay formula which has yet to be agreed. The inclusion of firefighters in the ‘professional and technical’ classification will only be ‘an important consideration.’ There is no long-term pay formula, ie after 2006.

The arrangements for long service pay and how the pay structure will affect senior grades is still not clear.

Integrated Risk Management Plans (IRMP), which are part of the settlement, will mean fire authorities being able to cut crewing levels unilaterally, removing the union’s existing negotiating rights. See issue 303 of the socialist.

Cuts to the shift system can now be made and pre-arranged, overtime can now be used to cover for these cuts.

The disputes and negotiating procedures and the ‘Grey Book’, pay and conditions agreement, will be replaced in October 2003 but nobody knows any of the details of what will replace them.

Firefighters speak out on pay settlement

FBU MEMBERS in Cheshire gave a mixed response to the deal. They recognised that as a shire brigade they would not feel as many changes as the big metropolitan brigades. The most important thing for them was that the union had survived to fight another day, with many of its rights intact.

FBU steward, Cheshire

They said that the pay part of the dispute had been settled months ago but the critical thing was the removal of many of the strings in the Bain proposals. They hoped that the safeguards in place would enable then to protect members’ conditions in the future but they had seen the real face of the New Labour government, demonising and attacking firefighters in collusion with the press.

Alan Kane, membership secretary for the Strathclyde region FBU spoke to Ray Gunnion of the International Socialist (The socialist’s sister paper in Scotland)

“It’s dreadful, a bloody awful deal. We didn’t set out on our strike action for this. It was a pay deal we were looking for. Instead this deal will lead to cuts in staffing levels, the closure of smaller fire stations and an increase in the area to be covered by each station.

We had a 16% pay offer in December last year, Gilchrist should never have gone on to discuss cuts.

Strathclyde region voted very narrowly for the deal but only by 51% to 49%. Seven out of the eight Scottish regions voted in favour. Only Central Scotland opposed the proposal.

It was clearly a tactical mistake to cancel the strikes. Typical union leadership tactic – marching the members to the top of the hill and then bringing them back down again. This led to a wearing down of the members’ confidence in the leadership. That’s why the deal went through.

There was a lot of criticism of Andy Gilchrist at the conference. A lot of the union leadership could find their re-election difficult”

The anger of the some firefighters was also indicated by Brian McFadyan, from Maryhill fire station in Glasgow, who said:

“Lions led by donkeys. They’re as bad as New Labour. They must be removed.”

Gordon McQuade from the Central Scotland branch of the FBU said:

“This gives the green light to employers to close down fire stations and move firefighters about. It’s a blueprint for industrial unrest over the next five years.”