London firefighters are to be balloted for strike action this week after fire bosses began the process of mass sackings in a dispute over shift patterns. The ballot was announced at an impressive central London demonstration on 16 September that saw 2,500 firefighters march on the headquarters of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA).
In August, LFEPA issued a Section 188 notice, starting a 90 day consultation on sacking the entire London firefighting force (5,500 firefighters) in order to impose shift changes. London firefighters currently work two day shifts of nine hours, followed by two night shifts of 15 hours. Management want to change to four 12 hour shifts. Despite negotiations over the issue, the Tory-run LFEPA decided the time was right to impose the changes in an act the union has called “industrial vandalism”.
The shift changes are a prelude to reducing night cover — the number of firefighters on duty at night, putting people’s lives at risk.
The present shift pattern means Londoners have decent cover, including at night when most fire deaths occur. The 12:12 pattern would allow management to move some firefighters off the night shift to save money — but put people at greater risk of death. A leaked document published by the FBU in March showed this is exactly the agenda of LFEPA and London Fire Brigade senior management.
In response to the threat of mass sackings, which could begin in November, the FBU organised two mass meetings involving over one thousand firefighters in August. Last Friday London firefighters voted by an tremendous margin of 95% on a 76% turnout to take industrial action short of strikes in response to the threat of mass sackings.
Much of firefighters’ ire is directed towards Brian Coleman and Ron Dobson, respectively the Chair of LFEPA and the London Fire Commissioner. Brian Coleman in particular is known for his profligate expense claims and his cuts-happy capering in his home borough Barnet, where he is a pioneer for the heavily-outsourced, privatisation-lite “easyCouncil” model that has brought him into conflict with other groups of workers.
The London rally was addressed by speakers from other unions currently in struggle, all of whom talked about practical solidarity. Steve Hedley of the RMT said “if the FBU goes on strike, we will try to ensure that no tube trains move in London.” Unison activists representing non-uniform fire service staff also in dispute with the Authority said they would be actively seeking to coordinate the timing of any action with that of the FBU.
For the FBU to be situating their London dispute so clearly at the heart of a broader working-class fightback against cuts is significant; if words of solidarity are turned into action, London's Tory rulers could be for a very unpleasant autumn and winter. If they succeed, and if the RMT delivers on its promises of solidarity (or if the action coincides with a future round of tube strikes), then Coleman and co will get a very stark reminder of who really makes London move.