Firefighters urge union to face up to challenges

DELEGATES AT the annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU)
called on the union to face up to the challenge of a whole raft of
assaults on Fire Service conditions and prepare for industrial action if

Ken Smith

The conference agreed to take action on the threatened loss of 900
jobs with the introduction of regional control centres and also raised
the prospect of striking alongside other unions to save the fire service
and local government pension schemes.

The proposed moves towards regional control centres – down from 58 to
nine in England and Wales and possibly down to one in Scotland, threaten
the jobs of 900 workers, mainly women. The moves would also reduce
standards and response times.

These proposals are the most high-profile of many proposed changes
that the fire service employers and Labour government are making under
the guise of ‘modernisation’. Other debates, such as on crewing levels,
saw one firefighter say: "We don’t mind taking risks with our lives
when it is to save other people’s lives but we are not going to do it so
the bosses can cut costs."

The union also committed itself to firmer action on other issues
under the new general secretary Matt Wrack than had been apparent under
the recently removed leader Andy Gilchrist.

On pensions, the union lagged behind other public-sector unions in
readiness to take action to defend their pension scheme and did not
ballot for action along with other unions in the run-up to the 23 March
day of co-ordinated strike action.

Temporary retreat

However, the fact that the government had been forced into a
temporary retreat definitely lifted the confidence of firefighters that
something could be done. After the bruising experience they suffered at
the hands of the government during their 2002-2003 pay dispute,
firefighters have been hesitant about preparing for national action. At
the same time, the old guard union leadership of Gilchrist and his
acolytes were more intent on attempting to snuff out any opposition
against them in the union, especially from those who criticised their
mis-handling of the pay dispute.

New general secretary Matt Wrack addressed the pension debate in a
much firmer and militant manner than his predecessor would have done. He
said: "This union is not crushed or defeated. It is united and will
be ready for a fight on pensions… We have to avoid the government
playing divide and rule amongst the unions. We have to ensure we fight
together in a co-ordinated fashion."

He added that while the union will negotiate with ministers, the
government had to show it was serious in those negotiations. Otherwise
the union would prepare the way for a strike ballot to defend pensions,
after a recall conference.

This is a step forward from the FBU. But some activists may question
why, given the agreement at the last conference that any attack on
pensions would result in an immediate ballot for action, there has to be
the added stage of a recall conference before a ballot.

Although a recall conference may possibly build the mood for action,
the reports from delegates showed the white hot anger existing against
the government’s pension plans. Also, with Blair and Blunkett having
signalled that pensions reform was going to be a major government
battleground, any delay could see the FBU lagging behind other unions.