Two and a half thousand firefighters lobbied parliament on Wednesday 17 November, to kick off a national campaign against cuts in the fire and rescue service.
The lobby heard speeches from Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary as well as MPs John McDonnell, Katy Clark and John Cryer, Frances O’Grady from the TUC and Mark Serwotka from PCS.
Matt Wrack said that previous generations had fought for public services and that workers “should not accept the race to the bottom”. “Public sector workers should campaign together and strike together”, he said.
The government claimed it would protect frontline services, but the comprehensive spending review cut the capital grant to fire authorities by 25% over four years. This grant accounts for around half of spending on the fire and rescue service overall, but up to two-thirds in metropolitan areas where more firefighters work (the rest comes from council tax). The FBU estimates such a cut amounts to over 7,000 firefighter jobs — more than one in nine firefighters.
The impact on public safety would be stark. Fire authorities are drawing up plans to reduce fire cover at night, which is precisely the time when the casualty rate from fires is highest, because people are asleep in their beds. Management are also looking to cut the ridership on fire engines.
The callous disregard for public safety is revealed by response times. On average, fire engines take two minutes longer to arrive at fires than they did a decade ago. The FBU puts this down to cuts under New Labour. Government figures show this means every year more people die in fires and in road traffic collisions. Yet its attitude is to say response times don’t matter, or that they are “offset” by having smoke alarms.
After the lobby, firefighters blocked the roads outside Westminster before an impromptu march to Downing St. In all, the mood was resolute and determined to face down the Tories and the Lib-Dem allies.
the battle continues
The bitter dispute in London over mass sackings was not resolved as Solidarity went to press.
The FBU held two solid strikes on 23 October and 1 November, with the private AssetCo scabs successfully picketed and most stations effectively closed. In the course of the second strike, three FBU pickets were run down by scabs, while the media bleated about FBU “intimidation”.
The FBU London regional committee called off strikes planned for 5-7 November, after management moved on the substantive issues in the dispute. The London fire authority was due to impose new contracts under the Section 188 process from 18 November, but agreed to postpone any decision on this until its next meeting on 26 January. Although this has not removed the sacking threat completely, it may provide a window to resolve the underlying dispute around shifts.
Management also moved on the shift patterns. Currently firefighters in London work two 9-hour day shifts, followed by two 15-hour night shifts, then three days off. Firefighters around the UK work a variety of shift patterns. Management originally wanted to impose shifts of 12-12, which is rarely done elsewhere. However just before the bonfire night strike, they offered 11-13 without strings and agreed to go through the non-binding, fire service arbitration process (called RAP).
The FBU London regional committee voted 19-3 to suspend the bonfire night strikes and at station meetings since, most firefighters have supported the decision. The SWP has criticised the decision, but they have not had a coherent alternative strategy. Socialist Worker accepts that the employer moved, but said the strikes should have been kept on because the union “missed a key opportunity to stretch the private AssetCo scabbing operation beyond breaking point”. This seems to mean, have some people die or get injured on bonfire night just to “prove” the scabs are useless. Such a scenario wouldn’t help the union’s case; arguably it would damage it with other workers.
The dispute is not over yet. The recommendations from the arbitration process were not available as we went to press. There are other secondary issues that still need to be resolved, around the action short of a strike, where money has been docked. Some firefighters have been disciplined over the action. The detail of any agreement will be important — and both the union and management could reject it, putting the strikes back on.