‘We are a national union and this is a national campaign’ – Firefighters strike in England and Wales but London condemns Scotland’s exclusion

Demonstration in London in June against the closure of the Clerkenwell Fire Station
Demonstration in London in June against the closure of the Clerkenwell Fire Station

FIREFIGHTERS in Wales will march on the Welsh Assembly today in protest against attacks on their pensions.

From noon until 4,00pm, firefighters across England and Wales will be on strike over ‘unsafe, unfair and unworkable’ pension proposals.

Scottish firefighters have been excluded from today’s strike action, prompting the London Region to issue a statement, printed below, warning of the dangers of the union being divided.

Members of the Fire Brigades Union will assemble at 1.00pm in front of the fountains at The Millennium Centre in Cardiff and march, with their flags, under the South Wales FBU banner to the National Assembly ‘to present a show of unity.’

78% (18,277) of firefighters voted in favour of national strike action in ballot results released last month.

Firefighters from New South Wales in Australia sent solidarity greetings to their UK counterparts ahead of today’s action.

As well as messages of support from the public and parliamentarians, the Fire Brigades Union has also received a letter from Jim Casey, State Secretary of the Australian Fire Brigades Employees’ Union. Writing on behalf of his members, Casey said:

‘The Fire Brigade Union Employees’ Union offers you and all UK firefighters our solidarity and support in your fight to maintain firefighters’ well-deserved and hard-earned pensions entitlements.

‘We have been watching the developments in the UK with interest. We also have a conservative government in this State and now a conservative national government as of 7th September 2013.

‘If there’s one thing the conservatives will learn it’s that if they try to take away our entitlements we will fight back.’

Firefighters have expressed their ‘extreme concern’ over Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s plans for today’s strike.

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service have decided to prevent striking firefighters from accessing fire stations for the duration of Wednesday’s day shift, meaning the county will be unnecessarily without most of its fire and rescue workforce for a nine-hour period.

Jim Parrott, who represents the South East on the FBU’s Executive Council, said: ‘We are extremely concerned about the implications of this decision for our members and the people of Surrey.

‘The decision is completely unnecessary and displays an aggressive disregard for common sense.

‘We certainly don’t want this situation to erupt into a local dispute but there is a limit to how far the staff will be bullied and intimidated.

‘The fire authority must change its stance and adhere to national guidance as other fire authorities have done.’

A national agreement is in place with government and employers for firefighters to be able to volunteer to return to work in the event of a major incident such as terrorism.

However, Chief Fire Officer Russell Pearson’s decision to prevent firefighters from accessing stations will mean that this agreement will be impossible to implement in Surrey, with firefighters threatened with charges of gross misconduct if they attend their fire station, they will be unable to prepare in time in the event of a major incident.

Guidance from the National Fire and Rescue Service Employers issued recently advised fire and rescue services to allow firefighters to work and be paid for the rest of their shifts on Wednesday.

The FBU has reported that in neighbouring fire authorities chief fire officers are ‘actively engaging’ with firefighters and union officials to look after the best interests of the fire and rescue service and the communities that they serve.

The scale of opposition among Cleveland firefighters to the ‘mutualisation’ of the local fire and rescue service has been revealed in survey figures released on Monday.

Last year managers at Cleveland Fire Brigade began attempts to change their existing ‘Community Interest Company’ into a ‘Public Service Mutual’ responsible for the full gambit of fire service operations, and Fire Minister Brandon Lewis pledged £95,000 to support their plans.

However, in a survey of members commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union and conducted by Yougov, 97% of firefighters said they were fully opposed to the proposals.

Andy Noble, who represents the North East region on the FBU’s executive council said: ‘Firefighters are united in their opposition to mutualisation, and it’s high time these plans were scrapped.

‘Firefighters know best what works for public safety – and their own – and their rejection of these plans could hardly be more categoric.

‘Hopefully, we can now lay to rest claims among government and management that there is a desire amongst firefighters and emergency control staff in Cleveland to adopt such a business model.

‘Fire and rescue services across the country must learn to include fire and rescue staff in discussions that will impact on how the service is delivered on the front line.’

The Fire Brigades Union has argued that the drive towards mutual fire and rescue services is a stepping stone towards the eventual privatisation of a publicly owned emergency service.

The scale of opposition was revealed in other statics:

•97% said the conversion would change the Fire and Rescue Service for the worse.

• 92% said that such a move would worsen the level of service available.

In addition, the sense of exclusion from the process was also apparent:

• Nearly all respondents said that the implications of mutualisation had not been adequately explained to them.

•94% said that they are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with opportunities available to put forward views to the fire authority.

• Nearly all respondents said they needed more information on how mutualisation would affect employment terms, job security, pensions, pay and job role.

FBU members in Cleveland say they will now continue to lobby the fire authority until their overwhelming opposition is acknowledged.

FBU London issued an emergency statement on Monday expressing concern that Scottish firefighters are excluded from today’s strike.

The statement said: ‘Fire Brigades Union members in England and Wales have been called upon to take strike action in response to government attacks on firefighters’ pensions, which would see thousands of us work longer, pay more and receive reduced benefits on retirement.

‘We completely support the campaign of strike action and urge maximum solidarity among FBU members.

‘However, we are concerned at the decision by the FBU’s Executive Council to exempt Scotland FBU members from that strike action.

‘This decision was reached so that recent revised proposals from the Scottish government could be discussed more fully, and potentially paves the way for a local settlement to the pensions’ dispute in Scotland.

‘We believe that now is not the time for a move away from the unified, joined-up, national campaign of the last two years and towards an acceptance that the outcome for firefighters in this dispute will be determined by geography.

‘Such a shift would undermine the principle set out in the emergency resolution passed unanimously at the union’s national conference in May, that “. . . as far as possible FBU members should have the same pension arrangements in all parts of the UK”.

‘It would also carry huge and potentially very damaging implications for the campaign and the union more widely.

‘Not only might the campaign become atomised and weakened, but any local settlement would, in reality, set a benchmark upon which it might prove difficult for firefighters elsewhere to improve – a prospect especially undesirable if that local settlement did not address our key campaign demands and was deemed inadequate by most others.

‘Devolution in the United Kingdom does not have to mean devolution in the Fire Brigades Union.

‘This is not about denying the democratic rights of Scotland FBU members. It is about recognising that we are a national union and this is a national campaign.

‘As such, all firefighters have an interest in recent developments in Scotland and are entitled to take a view on them.

‘It cannot conceivably be right, in a national campaign, for a minority of firefighters, by default, to determine the outcome for everyone else.

‘Coming before government resolve has been properly tested, any decision to allow a fragmentation of the campaign would be premature. More pertinently, it may threaten the status of the FBU as an integrated, national union, with grave consequences in the long-term for all members.

‘What began as a united and co-ordinated national campaign must, insofar as it remains possible, end that way.

‘Our strength lies in our national unity.

‘To this end, we call on the Executive Council to:

‘1. Rededicate itself to fighting a co-ordinated, national campaign.

‘2. Agree not to permit FBU regions to decouple from that campaign to consider proposed local settlements.

‘3. Ensure that all future calls for strike action cover members in England, Scotland and Wales.

‘One union. One campaign. Out together. Back together. ‘Unity is strength.’