AT 7pm on the dot on Christmas Eve the doors of Stoke Newington Fire station opened and the fire fighters began their seventh strike in the escalating dispute over pensions. They were joined on the picket by an NUT teachers union rep and a Unison member.
Amanda Bentham, NUT committee member for Tower Hamlets told News Line: ‘I have come down to the picket to show solidarity with the fire fighters on strike who are facing ridiculous enforced conditions where they have to work until they are 60 before they can claim their pension.
‘So in teaching we have a similar situation where we have to work longer and have to pay more and get less out at the end of it, however we don’t have to face life threatening situations. The physical demands that they have endure are extreme. All public sector workers should be on strike together against these attacks.’
Adam Placey, Stoke Newington FBU rep said: ‘We are out tonight because of non-negotiation from the government.
‘We are coming out again on New Year’s Eve and the third of January. No fire fighter wants to come out on strike but they have left us no choice.
‘We are going to continue to strike until we get what we signed up for, that is not a lot to ask for, we just want what was on the contract we all signed.’
At Shoreditch Fire Station in Old Street, firefighters had made a brazier out of an old metal filing cabinet. FBU member, Benny Green said: ‘We are angry over various issues. Our contracts that we signed, some of us twenty years ago, some of us even longer have just been ripped up.
‘They increased our pension contributions last year and next year they are going up again to 14.2%. We are being told that we have to work until we are 60 and in our job you have to pass a fitness test.
‘An independent review found that two thirds, and it may be as high as 92% of those in their late fifties, will fail the fitness test. This will mean that all those fire fighters who fail the test will be dismissed on capability.
‘We would then not receive a penny of our pension until state pension age of 67. We just feel like we are doing all these years of service and cannot even complete our career. We should be like the French and storm parliament!’
Green went on to allege: ‘Our commissioner just got pensioned off and then re-employed in the same position so his pension is safe. And he was in a meeting yesterday trying to do the same thing to us that they did to the fire fighters in Essex, dock our pay not just for the strike but the entire shift, which in our case is thirteen and a half hours. He did not get his proposal approved in our case.
‘Around this station there are closures taking place. They are closing ten stations across London and those closures take place on January 9th. Around this station you have Kingsland closing, Bow, Clerkenwell, Southwark and Westminster.
‘This Fire Station will be covering what was essentially the work of five fire stations. You have football stadiums, tube stations, over grounds, you name it, all massive risks.
‘This is a government attack, they are the ones that are cutting us down, they are the ones who are decimating the fire service, they are stripping it down to the bare bones. We have to fight this or there will not be a fire service.’
Simon Chapman, FBU rep for the Borough of Southwark on the picket at Southwark fire station on Christmas Eve, told News Line: ‘I’m very disappointed with the judges’ decision.‘He put a lot of weight on Commissioner Ron Dobson’s experience and opinion. He said his (Dobson’s) opinion didn’t have to be right for the plan to be legal – just as long as it wasn’t irrational.
‘The jobs of over 600 firefighters, ten stations and 14 frontline fire engines, plus two fire rescue units will be removed on the ninth of January from the public.
‘I believe any logical person can see that this puts the lives of Londoners at risk.
‘Personally, I would like to see the London Regional Committee ballot the members with a view to taking further action up to and including strike action to defend this vital service for London.
‘This isn’t just a fight about the fire service but about the whole of the public sector and the essential services they provide.
‘I believe we should get together – both the public and private sector workers in a general strike to get us a government to do what the people want.’
Mary from Southwark Save Our Services said, ‘They are building all around the Elephant and Castle area, and Mayor Johnson approved another new building last Friday.
‘With the increased density of population we need a fire station here more than ever.’
Firefighters were in a determined mood at London’s Euston fire station, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) member Kieran told News Line: ‘We’re out because of the government’s attacks on public services in this country.
‘All services are under attack and the fire service is an essential service for the public.
‘This strike is about a very unfair attack on firefighters’ pensions.
‘We are ensuring the government doesn’t get away with sacking people for getting old.
‘We are going to have to work until we are 60 as far as the government is concerned.
‘But when we get past 50 our health and fitness deteriorates.
‘The management at that point will get rid of us because we are not fit enough to do the job and there’s nowhere else to put us.
‘We could get sacked and have to wait to get our pensions which we have paid thousands of pounds into every year.
‘We shouldn’t be denied a decent pension just because we’re old.’
Euston FBU member Tim said: ‘It’s ridiculous to ask firefighters to work until they are 60.
‘Not only that, it’s ridiculous to pay 15 per cent of our salary for a pension that will end up being less than what we were promised.
‘None of us want to be out on strike but this appears to be the only way to get the government back to the table.
‘Every public sector union has to plan their own strategy.
‘Firefighting is a uniquely physical job which means keeping us on to 60 doesn’t make sense.
‘And as a resident of London, I’m very unhappy about the plan to close ten fire stations in London on January 9th.
‘My family will be less safe because of that in my professional opinion.
‘One day the government praise us, the next they deride us.
‘We’re determined to see this through until we win.’
Pickets at Kentish Town fire station, northwest London, were buoyed by the news that Scotland FBU was also taking industrial action.
They also informed News Line that talks were held earlier between fire minister Brendan Lewis and FBU officials.
A paramedic from Camden Ambulance Station, Julie Healey stopped by to give her support.
She said: ‘I called by to donate some money to the firefighters but they would not take it, so I’m going to donate online.
‘We’re in this together. It’s on behalf of all of us in the emergency services. We have a good relationship with the fire brigade.
‘How am I supposed to lift someone down the stairs when I’m 60?’
Kentish Town FBU member Jason Harvey said: ‘We’re very disappointed because of the nefarious schemes and plots from the government to attack our pensions.
‘And that’s everywhere, they’ll want to have us work until we’re 75 before we get a pension.
‘It’s a general attack on the working class to bail out the banks.
‘The government is looking for the cheapest method to run the fire service, probably to make it attractive to the private sector.
‘They are doing this by decimating our pensions.
‘It would be hard for a private company to take on the fire service with the current pension scheme.
‘They did the same thing at Royal Mail.
‘I joined the fire service as a sense of duty not for profit.
‘With what is going on with tax rises and price rises, the whole country from all walks of life should make a stand.
‘In the last third of our career, they’ve doubled our pension contribution.
‘Making us face capability tests will help them to reduce the cost of the pensions because they can release those who are not fit enough as they are older, and for the fire service not having to pay its contribution to the pension scheme.’
Kentish Town station officer, FBU member Sean Maddeley said: ‘When I joined the fire brigade I had to join the pension scheme, there was no choice.
‘We had a contract – you pay into your pension and in 30 years’ time this is what you get.
‘The government are breaking that contract.
‘It makes me feel very upset.
‘I have diligently paid pension contributions, even at times when it was very hard and left me with little or no money.
‘Now the government has reneged on that contract. This is a fight I’m determined to see through to the end.’
Commenting on the fact that three of the fire stations that attended the recent Apollo Theatre roof collapse are due to be closed on January 9th, Sean added: ‘That’s par for the course – they praise us at one moment and the next minute they don’t particularly care about us.’
Strikers at Hornsey Road fire station were out in force on Xmas eve.
News Line spoke to some of the strikers. Mick, a firefighter went on to say: ‘I like to think that the powers that be will realise this can’t go on, it’s disgusting we have to go on strike in this day and age.’
Colin Jones also spoke to News Line: ‘Here we are again, we’ve got to get the unions together. We shouldn’t talk about compromise. No compromise!’
At Northolt Fire Station in northwest London the brazier was crackling and hoots of support came from virtually every passing car.
FBU member Bob told News Line: ‘We are standing up for our rights, defending our pensions.
‘I entered into a contract 23 years ago and now they want to change that contract.
‘Can I do that with my bank or my mortgage? No.’
FBU member Alan Jackson said: ‘I’m fit and healthy but I have to worry about the future.
‘I joined the fire service late and now, for me to get a full pension of £19,000, I’d have to do 40 years, which would make me 74, which is ridiculous.
‘The whole public sector is getting hammered.
‘Some group has to stand up.
‘Support for our stand is very good and yes, I support a general strike.’
FBU member Jay Gibson said: ‘The attack on our pensions is disgusting, just like the attack on the NHS and the threat to Ealing Hospital.
‘The whole infrastructure of the country is being dismantled.
‘I would call united action across the public sector.
‘If we don’t stick together we will fall separately.’
l Just before the strike started FBU General Secretary, Matt Wrack, said: ‘Firefighters on duty over the festive period don’t have much to celebrate this year and tonight’s strikes will remind the government of the service we provide 24 hour a day, 365 days a year, every year of our careers.
‘Nobody wants these strikes but firefighters remain extremely angry over the prospect of being priced out of their pensions and facing the sack owing to the government’s ludicrous pretence that men and women of 60 can meet the same fitness standards as 20-year-olds.
‘The government at Westminster has acknowledged our concerns but not done anything to seriously address them, so we welcome the chance to meet the government and hope this afternoon’s meeting provides a genuine dialogue.’
The union has already reached agreement with the government and with fire services across England and Wales on the recall to duty of striking firefighters in the event of major emergency incidents which might lead to large numbers of people being put at serious risk.
Firefighters have the fundamental lawful right to strike and so the criteria for such a recall is very strict, with the union warning that the mechanism should not be abused.
These agreements mean that in certain circumstances striking firefighters would immediately return to work on a voluntary basis.
Such agreements are in place in all parts of England and Wales apart from Essex, where the Chief Fire Officer has stated that he does not want any such agreement and so does not want striking firefighters to return to work even in the event of a major emergency threatening major loss of life.
Matt Wrack said: ‘It seems bizarre that the Essex Chief Fire Officer is the only one to snub such an agreement especially as the government has placed such importance on them being in place for public safety.’
Further strikes are scheduled between 6.30pm on Tuesday 31 December and 12.30am on Wednesday 1st January and 6.30am and 8.30am on Friday 3rd January.