The Guardian December 4, 2002


UK firefighters' first strike in 25 years

Britain's firefighters began an eight-day strike on November 22 after 
the Blair Government pulled the plug for the third time on a negotiated 
settlement with Fire Service Employers. This followed a 48-hour stoppage. 
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had not been on strike for 25 years.

In their place, 19,000 military troops were deployed in old, lumbering 
"Green Goddess" fire engines. (The modern fleet was locked up behind picket 
lines.) This left Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon "extremely concerned" with 
10 per cent of his forces tied up on fire duty instead of on the ready for 
a war against Iraq.

An 87 percent vote in support of the strike action shows the determination 
of the firefighters to proceed with their demands.

"Firefighter and Emergency Control Room staff want professional pay which 
reflects their professional skills", said Mr Gilchrist.

The Blair Government described their pay claim as outrageous and claimed it 
would undermine the British economy.

"The idea that firefighters getting a fair pay rise would destroy the 
economy is plain nonsense. Blair didn't say that when he pocketed 40 per 
cent himself last year.", said Mr Gilchrist. (Tony Blair's salary has 
increased 85 per cent since 1996.)

Blair has a "modernisation" agenda that would fund any wage rises. This is 
spelt out in a recent report, known as the Bain Report. It includes:

* cutting the number of firefighters working at night. But it is at night 
when the most people, particularly the elderly and children, die from 
fires. Fire Statistics UK 2000 states that "there were more casualties per 
dwelling fire in the early hours of the morning. The highest casualty rate 
was between 2am and 3am";

* paramedic training for firefighters. Firefighters are trained in first 
aid but their main task is to deal with a fire. "FBU members already 
administer first aid at accidents  what we should not do is substitute 
for trained professional medical staff. This position is supported by the 
British Paramedics Association and ambulance workers through their trade 
union, UNISON", the FBU said;

* joint emergency service control rooms. Public sector union UNISON warned 
that this would cost lives. A senior national health officer said it would 
turn control rooms into call centres.

"Anyone that has had to deal with a call centre will know just how 
difficult and frustrating the experience could be. You can't afford to have 
'call waiting' while lives are at risk. If they are really keen on saving 
money why not go the whole hog and do what some banks have already done, 
divert calls to Bombay  no doubt they will save money, but what about 
lives?"

The public and the trade union movement are right behind the firefighters.

"This in no longer a dispute between this government and the fire brigade 
union. It is a dispute between the government and the trade union 
movement", said John Edmonds, General Secretary of the 700,000-member GMB.

The firefighters are considering two further eight-day strikes before 
Christmas and are holding a TUC-backed march and rally in London on 
December 7.

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For further information and to send messages of support, visit the FBU's website: http://www.fbu.org.uk

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