A Labour-led fire authority has picked a fight with firefighters by trying to force through fundamental changes that could make their jobs far worse.
West Midlands Fire Service (WMFS) has been accused of attempting to introduce a two-tier workforce—ignoring the FBU union.
Firefighters were set to meet on Monday to discuss the attacks and to launch a ballot for strikes.
The fire service—overseen by councillors on the Labour-controlled West Midlands Fire Authority—has introduced contracts that could make new firefighters take on extra duties.
Firefighters on these new contracts could end up having to do work well outside their normal job roles—potentially taking them away from front-line emergency work.
FBU West Midlands chair Andrew Scattergood said, “The so-called ‘Labour led’ fire authority is creating a two-tier workforce between those who are contracted to do any work and those who have contracts that the public would expect a firefighter to have. It is a classic divide and conquer strategy.
“The new contracts give management an unhealthy amount of power to dictate the work firefighters do.”
The fire service already wants firefighters to take on duties such as taking patients home from hospital, or helping people who have fallen at home. The FBU has raised concerns that this takes firefighters away from their front-line duties.
The new contracts give management an unhealthy amount of power
But Andrew told Socialist Worker the new contracts would allow the fire authority—and soon the Tory West Midlands mayor—to add even more work.
“If I had said five years ago, do you think the fire service would be contracted to drive people home from hospital, you would have said no,” he said.
“We’re changing governance to the mayor. We have no idea what the mayor’s got in store for the fire service—he could change the direction of the fire service to whatever he sees fit, and our new members would be contracted to do it.
“What will the plan say in five years’ time? This is why we can’t allow it to continue.”
The changes come amid ongoing talks between fire service bosses and the national union about changing the role of the firefighters. FBU members rejected a proposed pay offer last year that was linked to taking on extra duties.
Andrew said the moves by WMFS were an attempt to bypass the national negotiations and “undermine collective bargaining.”
In a letter to WMFS, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said, “There would be no point in having national negotiations at all if a local Fire and Rescue Authority such as West Midlands can simply bypass that process when it wishes”.
West Midlands firefighters are now set to vote on whether to strike against the contracts.
The ballot comes just ahead of local elections, but the dispute points to the role of Labour councillors in forcing through attacks on jobs and services.
Seven members of the fire authority are Labour Party councillors from Birmingham—a council that has provoked a number of disputes with workers recently.
The council is currently trying to force through job cuts and rota changes against homecare workers, who have struck against its plans. It also fought a high-profile battle with bin workers, who struck against attacks to their terms and conditions last year.
Changes to firefighters’ roles could mean they end up picking up the slack from cuts to other services.
Andrew said, “One of the big concerns from our members is that in cases such as the bin strike, they’ll be saying we need to go and collect the bins. That’s nothing to do with us.
“Not that I think they will go down this route, but is there an argument that says uncollected rubbish is a fire hazard, and is it therefore in the role of a firefighter? It’s a question that we as a trade union can’t allow to get that far”.