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Week commencing 15th November 2002

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Industrial News

Support our Firefighters

by Caroline Colebrook

FIREFIGHTERS throughout the country are on strike for the first time in 25 years as we go to press, after the Government failed to produce any acceptable offer to settle their 40 per cent pay claim.

 Twice the Fire Brigades Union deferred starting their programme of strikes to give last minute talks a chance.

 But it became clear that the Government was simply wasting their time when the best they could offer was an 11 per cent rise - phased over two years and loaded with conditions that FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist described as not so much strings as ropes.

 The offer came from a review into the fire services headed by Sir George Bain and set up by the Government in September.

 This came two months after the Government blocked a pay offer by the fire service employers.

 The FBU has refused to get involved with this review. Its terms of reference are mainly concerned with management and organisation rather than pay.

 The three people conducting the review have, by their own admission, little knowledge or experience of the fire service. It was given three months to report in December when several years would have been needed for the reviewers to get a full understanding of the situation.

 And the Government declared in advance that even if the review did recommend a substantial pay rise, there would be no money to fund it.

 Furthermore, eight other reviews of the fire service have been conducted in the last three years - and the Government has ignored their findings.

 In other words, the review is simply a smokescreen to cut across the FBU strike plans. It is a piece of political spin to make the Government seem reasonable and the FBU seem unreasonable when the reverse is true.

 An FBU statement said: “This is a desperate attempt to spin the real issue, and to pull off some sort of PR coup, trying to turn the public against the very firefighters who day in and day out are prepared to risk their lives to protect the public.”

 Then last week the Bain review made an early recommendation - the 11 per cent over two years.

 Firefighters reacted angrily. Andy Gilchrist last Monday described it as “insulting” and said: “He [Bain] has effectively wrecked the pay talks. We are currently employed on a salvage operation to see if there is any hope of putting things back together again.”

 Other union leaders were also surprised at the low level of the 11 per cent offer and the unacceptable strings attached.

 Andy Gilchrist said: “We are beginning to suspect that those in the dark corners of Downing Street are deliberately trying to provoke a strike.

 “They appear to believe it is some strange political rite of passage for Tony Blair. There is no question that the Government knew exactly what it was doing.

 “To hype up talk of a substantial pay rise and then deliver this is just a slap in the face.”

 The FBU is sticking t its demand for a 40 per cent increase. That seems like a lot but as always with percentages, it hinges on what it is a percentage of.

This would bring Firefighters’ pay to £30,000 a year - quite modest compared to many white-collar workers whose jobs are nowhere near as vital or skilled.

 Since 1978, firefighters’ pay has been linked to manual workers’ pay. But since the link was established, firefighters’ wages have fallen in real terms.

 At the same time, the demands of the job have increased in terms of skills and training needed and the number and type of incidents attended.

 Indeed, for several years the Government itself has put firefighters in the professional category of workers, while their pay levels have remained tied to that of manual workers.

 In May 2001, the FBU commissioned two independent research studies into the pay levels of firefighters - conducted by the Labour Research Department and the Independent Employment Consultancy.

In addition to a substantial pay rise, the FBU is demanding a new career structure for firefighters. Currently as soon as they are qualified their pay remains static throughout their career - no matter how much extra training they do or extra skills they acquire.

 In pay negotiations earlier this year, the FBU and Fire Service Employers were close to an agreement that would have avoided the need for a strike but the Government intervened to block this.

 The current strike, which began at 6pm on Wednesday, will end at 6pm on Friday 15 November (48 hours).

 Future strikes will be from Friday 22 November at 9am to Saturday 30 November at 9am (eight days); from 9am on Wednesday 4 December to 9am on Thursday 12 December (eight days) and from 9am on Monday 16 December to 9am on Tuesday 24 December (eight days).

 During the strikes, some London Underground stations will be closed for safety reasons. These deep-level stations are: Belsize Park, Borough, Caledonian Road, Covent Garden, Edgware Road, Elephant and Castle, Goodge Street, Hampstead, Holland Park; Kennington, Lambeth North, Lancaster Gate, Mornington Crescent, Queensway, Regent’s Park, Russell Square, Tufnell Park and Wapping.

 Businesses in Canary Wharf have hired their own private fire service to provide cover.

 For the rest of us, cover will be provided by the armed services using 49-year-old green goddess fire engines. There are only 827 of these compared to 4,500 regular fire engines and they are very poorly equipped. They do not even have radios or seat belts.

 Government policy is putting us all at risk, including the under-trained squaddie scabs.

 The strike will obviously leave firefighters severely out of pocket in the run up to Christmas and support groups are springing up around the country.

 This Friday, 15 November, entertainer Joe Strummer, former front-man of the Clash, will join Andy Gilchrist at Acton Town Hall for a fundraising event for the FBU strike fund.

 Also on the bill are comedian Mark Steel and the firefighters’ band No Bitchin’.

 The event is already close to being sold out but there will be many other fundraising events.

 Steve Humphries, FBU Acton branch secretary, said: “We’ve got families where both parents are firefighters and they will be right up against it in the run-up to Christmas.

 “Despite some of the predictions in the media, our experience out on the streets is that the public are with us and that positive support will be on full display at Acton Town Hall on Friday night.”

 Geoff Martin, London convenor for the public sector union Unison, said: “The trade union movement and the wider public will not sit back and watch the firefighters and their children go short in the run-up to Christmas.

 “We’re with them 100 per cent and we’ll organise as many benefits and bucket collections as it takes to keep them going in their fight for fair pay.”

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