Delegates to the FBU firefighters’ union conference last week backed a national strike over pensions—just not yet.
In a hard-fought debate on pensions, the majority voted for an executive-backed motion calling on them to “prepare for national strike action”.
But an alternative resolution from the London region, which called for a ballot “immediately following this conference”, was opposed by the executive and voted down by around three to one.
Opening the debate, general secretary Matt Wrack called pensions the “central issue”—and said he was clear that “the only answer will be national strike action”.
His immediate proposal on pensions, though, was for an online survey of union members.
Ben Sprung moved the motion for London. “It ensures we are committed to taking action,” he said.
Many prominent figures in the union backed London’s position.
Kevin Hughes, the Merseyside firefighter who recently won his victimisation case, got a standing ovation when he spoke. He backed London’s motion.
“I’d really hope you wouldn’t need too much encouragement to back a resolution like this,” he said.
He rejected calls for “dialogue” with the government. “There’s nothing to talk about. Which part of pay more, work longer and get less is up for negotiation? There’s no debate to be had.
“Let’s roar like lions from this conference today.”
Mark Kinsalla said members in Essex would not accept the executive’s “wishy-washy resolution”.
He pointed out that it said “members will always be extremely reluctant to take any form of industrial action”—and called that “an outrage and an insult” when Essex members had been taking action for two years.
And Pauline Perry from Berkshire said the union should be part of coordinated action now. “We made a unified stand on 26 March,” she said. “Can we not do the same in time to join them on 30 June?”
But, among others, John Drake of Gloucestershire called London’s plan “too soon”, while David Nichol from Northern Ireland said it was “simply not realistic”.
Passing the executive’s motion leaves the union with no timetable for action other than what its leadership now decides.
Earlier, delegates had voted to support a fight over pay. But the executive put forward a “qualification” to that motion.
Matt Wrack said the union did not accept “the logic of pay freezes”. But he said, “If we’re talking about taking on our employers on the question of pay, we’re talking about a national strike.
“You will tell me when we’ve reached a point where our members are prepared to take that action. But the executive council view at this stage is we haven’t quite reached that.”
He later made a similar argument over job cuts, saying, “We need to ensure every single cuts proposal is challenged, is opposed.
“I believe that fight is ultimately going to lead to strike action. The timing of that strike action is a tactical decision.”
Cambridgeshire FBU brigade secretary Kevin Napier welcomed Wrack’s speech—but said he was “suffering from deja vu”.
“We can’t go away from this conference with just words,” he said. “As we speak, back in my own brigade, senior management are addressing a press conference. Forty five firefighter posts are going to be lost.”
Kevin pointed out that Wrack had admitted 900 firefighter posts had gone nationally in the last year.
“They’re picking on us one by one,” he said. “We need to stand up and tackle it, all together.”
This was the last annual conference of the FBU, after the executive pushed through a plan to only hold the conference every two years to save money.
Around a third of delegates voted against the changes.
However, the decision did leave the door open for a “special conference” to be held next year instead of the annual conference.
Rally at Cambridgeshire fire authority as it votes on cuts, 11am, Thursday 26 May, Fire authority HQ, Brampton Rd, Huntingdon, PE29 2NA