LONDON’S firefighters are ready to strike, unless a threat by the capital’s fire service bosses to sack them all is withdrawn.
More than 2,500 firefighters marched through Waterloo to the headquarters of the London Fire Brigade on Thursday, voicing their anger at the Tory head of the fire authority, Brian Coleman, and carrying placards saying: ‘No mass sackings!’, ‘Fire cuts cost lives’ and ‘No to 12-hour shifts’.
They warned that behind the plans to terminate all their contracts is a move to impose new shift patterns and close fire stations.
It is also a threat to their union – the FBU – and the right of the union to collectively bargain on their behalf.
Thursday’s mass demonstration took place ahead of the ballot result on action short of a strike.
It was announced that the Fire Brigades Union will now ballot its members for strike action across the capital, after the refusal to lift the threat of dismissal against the 5,500-strong workforce.
There were loud shouts of ‘Coleman out! Coleman out!’ as the London firefighters were joined by FBU members from brigades across the country.
Russell Brown, a firefighter from east London, told News Line: ‘There is support from other fire brigades today and we’ve had support from firefighters worldwide.
‘We’ve had messages of support from the Australian Fire Brigade, the Czech Republic and Canada.
‘The politicians and head of the Fire Brigade want to sack us all, change the terms of our contracts and the hours that we work, and make us work 12-hour shifts instead of the current nine-hour days and 15-hour nights.
‘But the change will have an affect on all our home lives.
‘They say it’s to be more productive, but we’ve met every target that we’ve been set and if they want to set us new targets they should give us the chance to meet them.’
Jim Camp, also from east London, said: ‘All the changes seem to be geared towards shutting down fire stations so therefore reducing the workforce.
‘All brigades are going through cuts and changes at the moment.
‘It’s under the guise of “modernisation’’, but it’s just cuts. We need to make a stand against it.
‘We don’t take industrial action lightly, certainly not. But, yes, if we have to, then we will take action.’
Andy Flett, from Wallington, 21 years a firefighter, said: ‘It’s a big attack on the fire brigade as a whole.
‘It’s not just about shift changes, it’s about changing everything that makes the job what it is and it’s about health and safety as well.
‘It will make working conditions harder for us and ultimately it will affect the public because we will not be able to do our job.
‘It’s quite incredible that they feel they can sack 5,500 firefighters.
‘We’ve entered into negotiations to change the shift patterns and a whole package of changes, but yet they’ve decided this is a “188’’ which gives the fire authority the power to terminate our contracts.
‘We’re being told that we haven’t got a job and, if we want a job, to come back on their terms and conditions, which are draconian.
‘We are talking about a modern society and going back to the 19th century, that’s how it appears to us, that’s why so many of us have turned out.
‘It is so detrimental, not just to us as a workforce but to the public we serve, which ultimately includes us.
‘It’s not about pay, it’s about trying to save the job, basically, and our numbers have been decimated over the years. We’re working with less now than we did 10 or 15 years ago.’
John Gulliver, South Yorkshire FBU, said: ‘It carries on from our bitter dispute over two years ago, when our chief fire officer did exactly the same to us and issued notices of dismissal.
‘We’re appalled that another chief officer, serving such a large brigade as well of our capital, should try to enforce such draconian methods.
‘I definitely believe we’ve got to be coordinated and bring to book the appalling discrepancies between our management and the workforce.’
Ian Midd, from south-east London, said: ‘What’s annoying us the most is the way the government is trying to use the public sector as a scapegoat and we’re here to defend our conditions against shift changes, which would lead to station closures. That’s their agenda.’
He added: ‘In London all appliances are owned by Asset Co and about 90 per cent of our equipment and uniform is now loaned back to us by private companies.’
Trevor and Joseph Parsons, from south-west London, said they were marching because ‘it’s a just cause, we need to find out what’s going on, and we are showing solidarity and we won’t be screwed over for our contracts’.
Brett Loft and Alan Freaney, south-west London firefighters, said they were marching because ‘we won’t agree to their new shift change. They want to sack us all and put us on new contracts and it’s become about more than just shifts now. It’s also about conditions of service.
‘There’s only 24 hours a day. If they want to change, probably they should change the working routine.
‘Why change our start and finish times? I think they want to do it ultimately to lead to cuts.
Tony Thornes and Mick Broderick, from west London, said: ‘It’s like the Victorian times. It’s got no place in the 21st century, that’s for sure.
‘Unity is strength, that’s the bottom line. People are very, very angry indeed.
‘On our email system, there’s a blog and the amount of anger that’s been expressed on there against the chief officer and Councillor Coleman, who is leader of the LFEPA, is tangible and it is continuing.
‘When you consider that a quarter of London’s firefighters are on duty at the moment, this is a really good turnout.
‘We had a mass meeting a couple of weeks ago and you couldn’t even get in, it was so full.
‘I think this dispute is going to be a lot stronger than when we went on strike in 2002-03.
‘They must have thought, with all the new recruits to the fire service since then, we weren’t as strong as we were. But we’re a lot stronger.’
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said: ‘We have a big majority of all the firefighters not currently on duty in London on this march, and people have joined us from all over the country at short notice.
‘The fire authority couldn’t confirm where they are meeting until the last minute, so it was hard to organise the route.
‘We’re asking them to lift the process they’ve begun to dismiss shift-based firefighters in London.
‘The fire service is an outstanding public service. Firefighters are very committed public servants.
‘The people who really stand up for the fire service are the firefighters and the FBU.’