Up to 1,500 firefighters packed into two electric mass meetings in London last week as they began their ballot for industrial action.
They are currently voting on action short of a strike over bosses’ threat to sack every London firefighter in order to force through changed contracts.
On Thursday 16 September firefighters from across Britain are set to march on the bosses to demand the sacking threat is withdrawn.
If it isn’t then they will start a full strike ballot.
FBU union general secretary Matt Wrack got a standing ovation at the first meeting as he announced an escalating programme of action.
“There is only one way to challenge them and that is with strike action,” he said.
“If you don’t fight they will walk all over you.
“We need to be side by side, shoulder to shoulder—if needs be on the picket line.”
And there were cheers and stomping in response to firefighters who said they had already started action by “withdrawing goodwill”—refusing to do some tasks that fall outside their contracts.
Socialist Worker believes around 80 percent of London firefighters are currently taking this action.
London’s firefighters are clearly ready for battle.
The meetings which took place on Tuesday and Thursday of last week filled the biggest rooms at the TUC and NUT union’s headquarters.
And hundreds more stood lining the side and back of the halls.
Bosses want to scrap firefighters’ existing contracts—and are prepared to sack and re-employ them in order to push this through.
The new contracts will have worse shifts and attacks on terms and conditions.
The new shifts would mean the scrapping of the current pattern of shorter day shifts and longer night shifts.
So firefighters would be forced to work 12-hour shifts, whether it’s day or night.
The union points out that leaked documents clearly spell out how the bosses will use this to make cuts to night time fire cover (see box below).
Ian Leahair, FBU executive council member for London, said, “It will mean stations closed at night and short staffing on all shifts.
“We will ballot for strikes if they do not take the threat of 12-hour shifts off the table.”
And he promised, “If we have to ballot for a strike, we will take that strike action.
“There will be no calling off strikes just because they want talks.
“There will be no calling off strikes just because they think they’ve got some agreement that they believe is acceptable.”
Firefighters’ bully boss, fire authority chief and Tory councillor Brian Coleman, is one of the highest paid councillors in the country, pocketing £118,499 a year.
He gets £38,177 as a Barnet councillor and cabinet member, £53,439 for sitting in the London Assembly and £26,883 as chair of London’s fire service.
He is notorious for claiming a £10,000 taxi bill on expenses and scoffing dozens of free lunches. But this time he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Ian pointed out how young many of the firefighters at the meeting were.
“Some people say that the young people aren’t interested in fighting back—but you here today are living proof that a new generation of firefighters want to protect and save jobs and the service,” he said.
Firefighters on their way in to the meetings were in a militant mood.
Euston firefighter Andy told Socialist Worker, “Everyone you speak to is up for the fight.
“The plans would mean a massive cut in night cover and fire engines. And it’s about a wider attack on working conditions as well.”
Jerry, a South London firefighter, added, “You can see the strength of feeling here today. It’s us and them now.
“The tabloids say this is about us sleeping on the night shifts. But it’s about cuts. You don’t really sleep on a 15-hour night shift—you just rest.
“You have to be there and ready to go. You’re tired the next day. It’s not great as it is—but it’s better than what they want to change it to.
“Obviously people are scared. But they’ve had enough. We’ve hit the tipping point.”
Another firefighter, who asked not to be named, said, “Morale is the lowest I’ve seen it in 25 years in the fire brigade. Their real game is to cut fire cover and shut some fire stations at night.
“Initially some people didn’t want to strike. Now people are up for it.”
At the second meeting there was a discussion about whether the London region should call on the national union to recall its conference.
This could be a launchpad for national strike action in defence of the London firefighters.
Joe MacVeigh, FBU London regional secretary, came out strongly in favour of the idea.
He said, “I tell you something now: If there’s one London firefighter sacked, I want a recall of conference, I want the national union balloted, and I want every firefighter out on strike.”
Some officials looked nervous about this. But the meeting was enthusiastic, clapping and cheering.
The London firefighters are defending all our safety as well as their shifts.
Every trade unionist must build solidarity for them—and firefighters must not only come on the march in London but demand a recall conference now.
Why firefighters want to defend their shifts
The plan for 12-hour shifts is a prelude to cuts to night-time fire cover—as a leaked bosses’ document proves.
The document says the plan is to “withdraw personnel from night shift… six months after the conclusion of the working patterns project”.
It talks about “the removal of 10 appliances”—which means cutting fire engines.
London firefighters currently work 15-hour nights and nine-hour days.
This is already a long day shift—longer than most people’s eight hours.
The only reason they can do a night shift that is almost as long as two normal working days is because they rest for part of it.
The union believes making the two shifts the same length would make it easier for bosses to switch people off nights and onto days.
Yet most deaths from fires occur between 2am and 5am in the morning.
Night time is the most important time for as many firefighters as possible to be on duty.
The union is encouraging other FBU members from across the country to join the march on the London fire authority meeting at 12.30pm on Thursday 16 September (details of assembly point soon).
The ballot for action short of a strike started last Friday and ends on 17 September. The strike ballot will begin on 16 September if the sacking threat is not withdrawn before then.