Firefighters: cuts for pay. A bitter pill to swallow

Submitted by Anon on 2 July, 2003 - 9:14

The FBU pay dispute ended on 12 June.

Worn down by government and media propaganda, and government threats to impose a settlement, and demoralised by their executive's refusal to fight, firefighters and control operators around the country had reluctantly accepted the employers' latest offer.

At a conference in Glasgow on 12 June their reps, most with great bitterness, respected their mandates and voted 3:1 for the executive's 'accept' motion.

Here we print the motion and those put up in opposition to it, and assessments by firefighters of the dispute and the future.

Executive Council motion

The Executive Council recommend to recall conference that on behalf of the membership the "Fire Service Pay and Conditions Agreement 2003" is the resolution to the current pay dispute.

Conference recognises that this offer requires further detailed agreement within the NJC on a number of matters.

Conference agrees that the membership will be fully consulted prior to final agreement being reached on each of these issues.

London [opposition to EC] motion

Conference accepts that the "Fire Service Pay and Conditions Agreement 2003" could form the basis to a resolution to the current pay dispute.

However, conference recognises that this offer requires further detailed agreement within the NJC on a number of matters.

Conference agrees that the membership will be fully consulted before a recalled conference is convened to discuss all of these issues prior to a final agreement being reached.

South Yorkshire [opposition to EC] motion

This conference rejects the latest offer by the national employers. The offer lacks clarity and sufficient guarantee for our members. This offer is clearly an agenda by the employers for cuts in the fire service.

We call upon the executive council not to announce further strike dates but for the FBU negotiators to re-enter negotiation with the employers to clarify the areas of concern to our members.

By Dave Thomas, FBU Secretary, Croydon

Most of our members and officials had never been on strike before last October. We believed then (most still do) that we were worth and overdue for an increase in salary. It was for this we went on strike.

From the outset there were clear signs that the national executive didn't have a cohesive strategy. The move from a 48-hour to an eight-day stoppage, with two more to follow, was clearly an attempt to "ramp up" the pressure on the employers and Government.

It didn't go down too well with some of the membership, as we had been told by senior officials that the strikes would be "short and sharp", however, there was a degree of confidence that the strategy was OK and that the EC knew what they were doing.

That soon began to dissipate when the two following eight-day strikes were cancelled: already we were sending out a mixed message to the members and the Government.

After more talking through January, with no assurances by the employers and the war looming ever closer, we went out the doors again at the end of January and early February.

More talks began, with a proposed four weeks of intensive discussion on the pay claim. However, after the first two weeks there was no mention of the main part of the claim: pay.

Clearly our EC had allowed the employers to dictate the agenda. This was very worrying and some of us had by now lost faith in the EC resolving this.

Then, the evening before recall conference, the employers came forward with a "take it or leave it" ultimatum. To the amazement of the membership, 12 of the EC voted to recommend it to recall, six EC members voted against. The next day conference overturned the General Secretary.

It was apparent at this stage that Andy Gilchrist was desperate for a way out, seemingly at any cost to the membership.

There was one more recall, with the Burchill proposals being endorsed by the EC as the way forward: London had a resolution which we felt gave us most of what Burchill didn't. The EC won by 2:1 on a card vote to recommend this to members as the basis for a settlement.

However, when members saw exactly what was in Burchill and, more important, what wasn't, they rejected it.

There was now a desperation about the leadership to end the dispute. Threats of imposition and removal of the right to strike were welcomed by some of us. We felt the Government was bluffing and the damage to them from within the labour movement might have been greater than any impact on us: you impose something on a group of workers, you've got years of industrial strife on your hands.

So to the final "final offer" which, to be honest, isn't that much better than the first one.

It went through by about 3:1, although the "accept" regions were in some cases deeply split, 51:49% in one, and 60:40% not uncommon amongst the rest.

Even the regions accepting this deal have said it's not a good offer. With the pressure put on them by some members of the EC and the fear of imposition, etc., they felt there was no other choice, and, to be honest, the way our negotiators were going we might have ended up with worse.

There will be an inquest into how we went from September 2002-with what was one of the biggest turnouts under the present system, which is designed to weaken workers' resolve, to a massive 9:1 mandate, then 15 days of strike action with 100% solidarity throughout the UK, and huge public support even after a six-week lay-off-to this, a deal which only gives 4% now, the rest to be decided after savings, savings which will have a detrimental effect on both the communities we serve and our members' safety.

Savings which will be realised by a reduction in fire cover and staff.

Savings which will lead to an increase in the time it takes to attend incidents with fewer resources.

A deal which takes away our ban on pre-arranged overtime, a policy which has created over 11,000 jobs in the fire service in the past 30 years.

We knew this would be a hard fight. We were prepared for that. We knew the right-wing press would attack us. We knew the full weight of the Government's spin machine would be used against us.

All this we knew and were ready for. What a lot of us didn't expect was to give in without a fight.

How could we let this happen?

Steve Kendall, political rep for Herts FBU, let Solidarity print the speech he planned to make at the recall conference

Hertfordshire will be voting to accept the offer, this is because this is the mandate our members have given us. However, there are a few words I would like to say first.

Today I feel sad. Right from the start of this campaign we have said (and rightly so) that from the government's point of view this has not been about pay but about breaking the FBU nationally. Today, they have done that.

Apart from letting ourselves down, we have also let down every other trade union. They have been looking for us to win some kind of victory. We haven't. We may not be the largest trade union in the land but we are, sorry were, the strongest, (with approximately 95% of the workforce in the FBU). Other unionists are now waiting to see who is next. To the trade union movement, I apologise.

We have let down the public. Our original claim would have cost them 43p per week, or £21 per year. For that they would have had a fully motivated fire service that is second to none. Because of our inadequacies, they will now have a diminished and deflated fire service that will cost them considerably more in house insurance, car insurance, and will also make every other commodity more expensive. To the general public, I apologise.

To the firefighters that were on strike in 1977, suffering hardship to secure us a decent wage and conditions of service, for giving this up for reasons that I do not understand, I apologise.

To the potential firefighters of the future, whose jobs we are giving up today, I apologise.

When we leave this building today, we should hang our heads in shame. From the position that we started from, how could we let this happen?

Grassroots need to get control

By "an angry FBU member"

Lessons learned? The role the EC members had to play during the last year has been raised. It has become obvious that a number of the EC are just doing the job to get off the pumps, and for the lifestyle. Many, if not the majority, have not truthfully represented their members, or faithfully reported back at EC meetings the will of the members.

Also, the 3:1 vote was not a true reflection of the way members felt in branches, and a postal ballot to decide the future of the dispute should have been held. This would have silenced either those saying fight on, or the ones saying this really was the best deal in town.

A lesson to any trade union on how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory has been given. The grassroots membership need to regain control of the FBU now.

The career officials have had their chance, and been found wanting. A grassroots led FBU could not have done any worse and would have been a damn sight less cocksure and more wary of the snakes that are our employers! Had those on a firefighter's wage been in the negotiations, and not those on national officials' salaries with all the perks that go with it (and that goes for EC members too, with their plastic), the government and employers might have found the fight a bit tougher.

The dispute has opened the eyes of many members who were previously not that interested in how the union was run. It has brought the prospect of a properly accountable leadership and EC closer. Another positive was the 30k site, which went from strength to strength during the dispute. As a source of information it far surpassed the official FBU site… Had it not been for the 30k site, my feelings are the dispute would have been over before Christmas.

Another positive was that a new political party was formed-Firefighters Against Cuts (www.firefightersagainstcuts.co.uk)-to enable the ordinary firefighter or control operator to take on the politicians who constantly lie to, and deceive the electorate. The idea being that you did not have to be gagging for a revolution to take on the mainstreams. The sense of injustice over the hammering we took in the press and from work-shy politicians would be enough.

Vilified but defiant

By Tim Davis, FBU rep, Mitcham

Looking back, personally, the two main highlights of [the] campaign were the lobby of the final meeting of the employers in September outside Westminster Hall which led us to marching to the Houses of Parliament and having a 'sit-in' on the road outside. Also the march through London in December, partly organised by the TUC. This event, unfortunately, coincided with the suspension of strike action, but nevertheless it was heartening to see so many people marching through London in support.

However, it was around this time that it became clear that the dispute was beginning to run away from us. Vague promises of very constructive talks taking place with a view to forming a negotiated settlement. We all wanted that to occur but none of us expected what was coming our way…

One of the main issues to come out from this dispute is the role of the media and government ministers. I have used both of these groups of people because they appear to work together. Not since the miners' and dockers' strikes has a group of workers been so vilified by these evil people. To read such lies and totally incorrect information regarding the fire service and the role we play is shameful. Certain newspapers will never be seen again on fire stations throughout the UK. It is also very disturbing that the only reason that the opposition party disagreed with the government was because their modernisation agenda did not go far enough! The Tories want to ban us from subscribing to a trade union and from having the right to strike!

Firefighters where I work appear now to be resigned to their fate. We are in a period of not knowing. How will our employer attempt to make the required changes? How will our union negotiate the rest of this deal? What shift pattern will we be on and at what location? Will our future pay formula be secured? Who will receive more or less than the average 7% increase in November? Will there be extra payments for extra roles, which we all thought had formed the basis of our pay claim? Will the union leadership step aside following the false promises? Many questions to answer, and I expect there are more.

This campaign has finished with a very poor deal for firefighters and potentially the public whom they serve.

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