FIREFIGHTERS marched out on a six-hour strike at 6.30pm throughout England and Wales on New Year’s Eve, seeing the New Year in on the picket line, finishing this latest strike in defence of their pensions at half-past midnight.
Striking firefighters spoke to News Line around the country and called for their action to be stepped up to defeat the Tory-LibDem Coalition government’s massive attack.
Under government plans firefighters in future will be forced to work to the age of 60 and beyond and if they fail the stringent fitness tests they will face the sack and the loss of their pension.
At Northolt Fire Station in north west London Lawrence Gillman told News Line: ‘The support from the public has been fantastic.
‘I think eventually it will have to go to a strike of the whole public sector, with the teacher unions, NHS unions and all public sector unions involved, each with their own individual issues, all coming out together.
‘The best way we can all be heard is through united action.’
Mick Roberts said: ‘It’s all one-sided in the media. When we, the FBU, try to get our point across it’s not reported very well, but their lies and distortions are given full coverage.
‘They are trying to portray their offer as reasonable, but it’s taking away what’s already been agreed.
‘The raising of the pension age has been shown by their own review to be impractical and unfeasible, but they’ve chosen to ignore it.’
Shane Grady said: ‘This government is constantly taking, taking, taking and people are really suffering.
‘The cost of everything is going up, while we’ve been on a pay freeze for a number of years.
‘And now they’re attacking our pensions. We’ve got to defeat them. We want a national strike of all trade unionists to kick this government out.’
A baby firefighter was welcomed to the picket line at the Chelsea fire station on the busy Kings Road.
‘We have massive public support for our campaign,’ said Chelsea FBU rep Steve Stephenson.
‘This strike is six hours, the next one is only two hours.
‘I’d like to see the action escalate.
‘Also striking today are the civilian police staff – they are out over pay.
‘We won’t give up this fight until we get what we signed up for.’
On the picket line at Greenwich Fire Station News Line spoke to Andy Ferigan, SE London Area FBU organiser, and Ian Smith, SE London Area Chair.
Andy Ferigan said: ‘It’s a bitter dispute, not one we asked for. A sustainable pension scheme is all we’re after.
‘We hope the dispute won’t go on, but in the event the government is unable to take the dispute seriously, we are preparing for a long, drawn-out dispute.’
Ian Smith added: ‘No one wants to strike but we’ve been forced into a corner. We’ve no alternative but to take this course of action.’
The New Year’s Eve picket lines at the three Norwich fire stations were well attended and in good spirits.
Kevin Game, secretary of Norfolk FBU, speaking at Earlham Fire Station, said: ‘Personally, I think the strikes need to be ramped up a bit now.
‘I think we need to use action short of a strike, which we have balloted for, such as withdrawal of goodwill and no overtime.
‘This did take place for the period 27th to 29th December.
‘Every fire and rescue service relies on goodwill and voluntary overtime. This would highlight to the public how thin the fire service has got.
‘Because we’re signed up to the TUC, the TUC won’t call emergency workers to strike action. So I don’t think coordination for a one day general strike could be done through the TUC. It would have to be done through the general secretaries.
‘I think a national general strike of all public services should have been done by now.
‘I hope the union coordinates something in the New Year, as the service is teetering on the point of no return.
‘If we don’t do something, we won’t be able to get these services back.
‘Our march down in London with 6,000 across the country was not even mentioned in the mainstream press.
‘They don’t want the public to know what’s happening.’
Fireman Chris Watering from Carrow Fire Station, said on Christmas Eve: ‘This government is making a determined effort to break up the fire service by reducing pensions and making it more viable for privatisation.
‘We must stay strong and continue the fight to defend the service as a public service.’
There were a dozen cheerful pickets gathered round the brazier in front of their fire engine at Shoreditch Fire Station in Old Street.
23-year-old FBU member Joe spoke to News Line about what he saw as the main issue: ‘The main thing is there is a medical you have to pass.
‘It is being pushed as a condition for work right up to the age of 60 to get your pension.
‘Most people will not be able to pass. It’s a lung capacity thing.
‘It’s a physical job. To expect people to be rescued by a 60-year-old firefighter is not reasonable.’
Joe explained that as a young man he was fighting for his future as well as for those approaching retirement now.
Firefighters at the Hemel Hempstead Fire Station walked out at 6.30 on New Years Eve, taking part in the six-hour national stoppage called as part of the FBU campaign against the government plans to radically worsen their pension rights.
The FBU rep at Hemel told News Line: ‘We are 100% out at this station to protest about the scandalous attack on our pensions.
‘There are many sides to these proposed changes but the main one is pushing the pension age for firefighters up to 60 with absolutely no provision for any future standards being put on us.
‘What this means is that we face the situation where anyone failing the fitness test, and let’s face it most firefighters simply cannot retain their fitness as they approach 60 years of age, will be dismissed without a pension – in effect just sacked.
‘To cap it all we pay the highest pension contribution in the whole public sector and our contributions are due to rise next year to over 14% of pay and for this we get absolutely no increase in benefits.
‘We have urged the government to sit down and talk in an attempt to reach a negotiated settlement but if this is not possible we are determined to take our industrial action further.
‘We are determined to do what is necessary to win this dispute.
‘We have had huge support from the public and other unions – we are absolutely determined to carry on with the fight until we secure a victory.’
At closure-threatened Clerkenwell fire station, north west London Fire Brigades Union official Greg Edwards told News Line: ‘The good thing is we’re still taking strike action.
‘We feel it’s making a difference because (fire minister) Brandon Lewis met with the FBU on Christmas Eve, although, he still hasn’t got the answers to our questions about our pension changes.
‘He’s still calling them a generous offer, whereas we still see it as an attack on our families’ future.
‘A generous offer is when someone comes up with something new, he’s actually taking stuff away from us.
‘The fact that we are continuing to take action shows our resolve.’
At Euston fire station, the FBU branch secretary Daniel Giblin said: ‘As before we’ve got 100 per cent support.
‘There is a massive strength of feeling, and it’s getting stronger as we go along.
‘Members feel the government is playing with people’s lives.
‘The government is not willing to seriously negotiate.
‘We’re heading into 2014 facing further industrial action.
‘It’s time our FBU Executive started considering upping the action with longer and more sustained strike action.
‘We need action across the public sector, taking a lead from the PCS and coordinating strike action with ourselves.
‘PCS members who work for the Met Police are out tonight. We need more action like that.
‘The TUC have to pull their fingers out and rather than giving empty words of solidarity, organising general strike action, and supporting those on strike financially.’
At Kentish Town, pickets were in a determined mood. FBU member Jason Harvey said: ‘The feeling is OK, we’re keeping our spirits up.
‘However, we are fully aware there is no movement on the government side, particularly from the cantankerous minister Brandon Lewis.
‘It’s likely the strikes are going to have to be intensified in the new year, and more prolonged.
‘We only hope the government see sense and act in a responsible way towards us and the people they serve, the public.’
Firefighters were out at Hornsey Road Fire Station, determined to win their fight. Ian said: ‘There’s no chance of changing this government’s mind. We’ll carry on till we win.’
His friend Joe went on to say: ‘The government have made up their mind and it doesn’t matter what we think. It’s all about money.’
Striking FBU members at Sheffield Central fire station on New Year’s Eve told News Line: ‘Firefighters are angry we’re not being listened to.’
An FBU spokesman said: ‘We were also out on Christmas Eve. We’re being forced into a corner by a government that’s stealing our pensions.
‘We’re all on strike throughout Sheffield. Basically we’ve signed up to a career and a pension we were told was guaranteed, and now it’s pulled from under our feet.’
The FBU picket at Stoke Newington Station was joined by a Unison Rep, NUT rep and the London Regional FBU rep Paul Embery, who was visiting different pickets in the London area.
Embery told News Line: ‘We need to do everything we can, including direct action and occupying fire stations if necessary to prevent ten London stations closing on January 9th.
‘I support peaceful, direct action that protects Londoners by stopping Boris Johnson from closing fire stations down.
‘We are in it for the long haul and we need to consider escalating the strikes.
‘The most important thing is that action is taking place and we need to keep up the pressure.
‘Evidence shows that people in their late fifties, for the most part will not be able to maintain fitness standards and have every chance then of being sacked without access to their pension until they reach the state pension age.
‘Strikes have been solid and solidarity amongst our members have been superb.’
George Binette, Camden Unison branch secretary said: ‘I have come down to the picket at Stoke Newington to show solidarity with the firefighters who are battling to defend their pension scheme.
‘This issue is important for the trade union movement as a whole and an important part of defending the public services.
‘Co-ordinated strike action is suppose to be the position of the TUC since September 2012, but in practice nothing has happened and we have sections fighting in isolation.
‘I think that there has been a number of opportunities missed in 2014.
‘We have got to see the sort of co-ordinated action in higher education as we did with the NUT, UNITE, NASUWT and Scottish Union EIS.’
At Wimbledon Fire Station FBU Rep Alan Kilroy said: ‘The campaign is going very well. There’s a huge amount of public support, it is very encouraging for the firefighters on the picket line, especially in the festive season.
‘The support we are getting for the campaign is very positive. I think we can defeat them on the pensions issue.
‘The more action we take, the stronger we get.
‘The fact that the government have had to bring in Royal Navy and RAF firefighters to back up the county fire brigades means their plans are not working.
‘Even though the government is denying this, we know it’s happening.
‘I would like to see an escalation of the strike.’
Simon Chapman, Southwark Borough FBU Rep, told News Line: ‘This evening has been really good. At least 20 members of the public came to visit the picket line to show solidarity.’