South Yorks firefighters plan industrial action

South Yorkshire firefighters could soon be taking strike action for the first time since the national dispute in 2002. They are angry at management’s attempts to impose changes in shift patterns, especially longer day shifts of 12 hours, that would be detrimental to childcare and family life.

Alistair Tice

Since 17 June, Fire Brigade Union (FBU) members are, after a 3:1 vote for industrial action short of a strike, only working their contractual nine-hour shifts and refusing to work any pre-arranged overtime.

In response, the chief and deputy chief fire officers (DCFO), backed by the Labour-controlled fire authority, have threatened to sack 744 whole-time firefighters on 1 January 2010 if they do not sign up for the new shift patterns.

The DCFO Steve Swarbrick challenged the union to produce the evidence of these threatened mass sackings.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said: “Managers, backed by councillors, are threatening to sack 744 firefighters. This decision was taken behind closed doors at a fire authority meeting from which the public and media were excluded.

“It is ridiculous for the fire authority to deny they are threatening to sack 744 firefighters. They have sent the union the formal signed notification setting those sackings out in detail.”

The FBU are now consulting members at fire stations across South Yorkshire with a view to holding an official ballot for strike action. Yorkshire and Humberside executive committee member Jerry Pagan told The Socialist: “These imposed shift changes are the last straw in a long list of intimidation and heavy-handed bully-boy tactics by a South Yorkshire management who won’t conduct proper meaningful negotiations.”

A mass rally of firefighters has been called for Monday 28 September in Barnsley to mobilise national support for the South Yorkshire FBU with up to 1,000 expected. This dispute reflects increasing unrest amongst firefighters nationally as the government wants to make £200 million cuts and bullying management try to impose changes in conditions.

Essex and Humberside brigades have voted for industrial action short of a strike and London FBU have just begun a strict work to rule and overtime ban after a 91% vote in favour of action. Merseyside FBU gave the employers the required seven days notice of commencement of a strike ballot unless the fire authority reinstate sacked, victimised FBU official Kevin Hughes.

The New Labour government and fire service management seem to be preparing for a showdown with the FBU.

The Observer reported on 2 August: “Tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being awarded to the private sector to train non-firefighters to tackle blazes if the brigades are over-stretched or go on strike. The move has been condemned by unions as ‘privatised strike-breaking’, but is considered necessary in Whitehall because the army, which has previously provided cover during strikes, is overstretched fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“In the first contracts of their kind, a private company, AssetCo, based in Middlesex, has signed deals to provide emergency replacement cover if firefighters strike. A £12 million five-year deal with the London service will see up to 700 people from outside the service trained with basic emergency firefighting skills. The company has also signed a deal with the Lincolnshire brigade (which has threatened to sack 112 firefighters in February if they don’t agree shift changes) and other regions are expected to follow London’s lead.”