Some 1,800 firefighters and their supporters marched through Barnsley, South Yorkshire, on Monday to protest against fire bosses who want to rip up their contracts and impose shift changes.
Management are also refusing to negotiate with the FBU union.
South Yorkshire chief fire officer Mark Smitherman has threatened to sack all 744 firefighters if they refuse to accept the new contracts.
Ian Murray, FBU regional secretary for Yorkshire and Humberside, told Socialist Worker that these changes are part of a bigger plan to rip apart the fire service.
“This is a test case. It will have massive implications for the union if he gets away with it,” Ian said.
But Smitherman may have bitten off more than he can chew. Firefighters in the region voted by 83 percent on a 79 percent turnout for strike action.
The size of the protest in Barnsley took many by surprise, including the police.
Two officers attempted to marshal what was supposed to be a small lobby in the morning. Some 500 turned up.
By 9.30am firefighters had already crowded onto the pavement outside the fire authority headquarters.
Delegations travelled from across the country to join the protest – including from Scotland, Wales, Devon, the Isle of Wight, East Anglia, Northern Ireland and London.
Among them were two coach loads from Essex. Fire crews there are fighting to stop savage cuts to their services.
Each delegation was welcomed by a cacophony of whistles and horns. By 11.30am the demonstration had grown to 1,800 strong.
Firefighters were greeted with smiles and car horns as they marched through the town. Some students skipped classes to join the demonstration and rally in the town centre.
One firefighter dressed in a donkey suit marched into the fire authority headquarters to demand Smitherman explain himself to the protesters.
Outside, a union official on a megaphone asked the crowd, “What should Smitherman do with £1,500?” “Shove it up his arse,” came the reply.
Smitherman had offered the money as compensation for the shift changes. He called the FBU officials “donkeys” during negotiations.
The fire chief passed a message to the protest, declining the offer to address “his employees”.
“Let’s go in and get him,” someone shouted back.
“What are we going to do if they carry out any redundancies?” the FBU official asked. “Strike, strike, strike!” came the reply.
Neale Williams, FBU branch chair of Whitechapel in east London, told Socialist Worker, “Firefighters across the country are under attack.
“Local ballots prove that there is a lot of anger. Now we have to turn these defensive disputes into an offensive national action.
“Bosses have been chipping away at our conditions since the 2002 dispute. But the recession has given them renewed impetus for their attacks. This has created a new mood of resistance among the rank and file.”
Addressing the rally, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack announced that the union would be holding a special meeting on 8 October to debate whether to convene a conference. This could then declare a national dispute.