Government Won’t Talk To Firefighters!

West Midlands FBU banner on a TUC march in London against government cuts
West Midlands FBU banner on a TUC march in London against government cuts

WEST Midlands Chief Fire Officer (CFO) Phil Loach has written to members of parliament in the West Midlands urging a negotiated settlement be found to the ongoing firefighters’ pension dispute.

In his letter to the West Midland MPs CFO Loach states that the pension dispute can only be resolved by the Westminster government and cites the continued negotiations in Scotland and Wales which have resulted in no further strike action being called, and in Northern Ireland where the trade dispute has been settled.

Firefighters in England walked out for four consecutive days earlier this month as the minister laid the controversial regulations for the 2015 Firefighters’ Pension Scheme in parliament.

CFO Loach also describes that – despite the Westminster government’s repeated assurances that ‘robust, resilient plans are in place’ – during strike action fire services are only ‘one serious incident away from a situation where we would not have the resources to manage’ having only ten to twenty fire appliances available, rather than the regular sixty.

West Midlands Fire Service have 519 employees who are currently members of the 1992 scheme and will be required to transfer to the 2015 scheme next April.

In order to achieve the same pension at retirement that they originally signed up to they would now have to work an additional ten years.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: ‘The West Midlands CFO is completely right when he says that the dispute can only be resolved by the Westminster government.

‘We have provided them with an evidence-based case about why the pension regulations are unfair, unaffordable and unworkable.

‘They need to start listening to what firefighters and now CFOs have to say.’

London Fire Brigade Commissioner Ron Dobson is under pressure to step down from his position after a judge ruled on Wednesday that the fire chief had acted unlawfully when he docked crew managers’ pay during a period of industrial action, potentially leaving the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority with a six figure legal bill.

During a dispute over shift patterns in 2010, firefighters as a form of industrial action relinquished the ‘star’ attribute – meaning in order to cover staff shortfalls firefighters could be required to act-up to the role of watch manager – a move that Dobson wrongly claimed they had no right to do.

Dobson docked the wages of around 370 firefighters, some losing up to 40% of their income, for not ‘acting up’ – work they were not contractually obliged to do.

Gordon Fielden, regional chair for the FBU in London, said: ‘We are delighted by the result but not at all surprised.

‘We always believed the commissioner’s actions were as unlawful as they were despicable. He treated 368 loyal members of staff like dirt in an effort to break industrial action. He should now seriously consider his position.

‘There can be no defence for the commissioner’s actions. He sullied his own reputation and that of the brigade by cynically and opportunistically plundering the wage packets of hard working and loyal staff whose only crime was to take perfectly lawful industrial action. I applaud our crew manager members who stood firm throughout the ordeal.’

After learning of the verdict, Luke Rowson, a crew manager at Feltham fire station, said: ‘I’m extremely pleased at the outcome.

‘I’m not a militant person but I refused to be bullied. The brigade docked my pay unfairly. Coming just before Christmas the deductions hit us particularly hard. I’m grateful to the FBU and their solicitors Thompsons for all their hard work. This result shows the benefit of being in a union.’

Firefighters from Cambridgeshire last Tuesday organised two impromptu lobbies of Parliament to pressure their MPs to act over the 2015 pensions’ regulations.

Firefighter Cameron Matthews said: ‘This event was not FBU-organised but just a group of grassroots, working class men and women, dissatisfied with the injustice of the current firefighter pension proposals who all wanted some answers.

‘Arriving from Cambridge, we jumped on the London Underground arriving at Parliament for midday and by chance met with another large group of ardent campaigners – the National Pensioners Convention.

‘They were a fantastic group lobbying their MPs on the same day, with near identical grievances to ours – the theft of pensions from the next generation.’

He added: ‘One highlight of the day was bumping into a surprised and very sheepish Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government. He scuttled away when he saw us without comment to avoid the direct challenges as to why he was stealing our futures, in front of the other members of the public speaking with their MPs.

‘Our second lobby of parliament was shorter but still effective. In the short time we were there, we managed to speak to seven MPs and two parliamentary aides from a range of political parties.

‘Our group even requested a meeting with Westminster fire minister Penny Mordaunt herself as we had found out she was in the building.

‘Whilst initially agreeing, she in the end resorted to sending an aide in her place which was disappointing. However, her aide listened to our evidence-based arguments on the unfair pension regulations and was, dare we say, to some degree sympathetic with what we had to say.

‘At the same time, the BBC were broadcasting a live news segment from central lobby resulting in, with some careful placement, 15 firefighters on national news occupying the entire background of a news story.

‘The day ended with a visit to Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert who listened to our case and agreed to sign EDM 454 to support firefighters and also support our cause through the media and other parliamentary means.

‘We hope that other Liberal Democrat MPs will also take an objective view, listen to the evidence and consider a similar fair stance supported by the public.

‘Let’s be clear, this is not the panacea and 50 firefighters lobbying their MPs will not solve our pension dispute. But it helps. It makes a difference. It makes our claim visible.

‘Without having attended these relatively small lobbies we would not have met the range and number of people we did and would not have been able to communicate the injustice of the 2015 Firefighters Pension Scheme being laid before Parliament.

‘Secondly, what was also curious was the personal sense of community we experienced. Despite what the media would have you believe, community spirit is not dead.

‘People do still care about each other and have a sense of right and wrong. This helped us coin a phrase for the day that embodied the experience – “community unity”.

‘Now we were just 50 firefighters over two days trying to make an impact. Imagine what a nation of 45,000 self-motivated, determined and committed firefighters could do.

‘We would like to thank all who attended both days from different brigades across the country. We hope it was a valuable and worthwhile experience that can encourage others in the future.’

Firefighter Matthews, is right, lobbying MPs, with however many, will not solve the pensions dispute.

Neither will limited strike actions.

What is required is an all-out national strike leading to a general strike to bring down the coalition and go forwards to a workers government that will fund the fire service, its firefighters and their pensions.