The threat of firefighters joining united strike action in the run-up to the May council elections has forced the government to make some concessions over its attack on pensions.
But there was a strong feeling among delegates to a special conference of the Fire Brigades Union today that those concessions do not go far enough.
The government has withdrawn proposals to increase the minimum retirement age by five years. So firefighters with 30 years service will still be able to retire at 50 and the maximum age for achieving a full pension will stay at 55.
But this is only for the next four years. After that the scheme will be reviewed. And, crucially, the protection is only for existing firefighters. New entrants will face a normal pension age of 60 from April of this year.
In addition, there is no safeguarding of provision for early retirement for injury and ill health. Compensation payments are also not protected. Both are under attack.
Delegates voted by about 60 to 40 to put the proposals out to consultation with the 50,000 members of the union and to suspend moves for a national strike ballot. There will be a recalled conference in about four weeks.
But they refused to recommend the deal or to go along with a form of words from the union’s executive that this is the best that can be got “with or without strike action”.
Pete Gallagher from the FBU in the West Midlands spoke against endorsing the deal. He told Socialist Worker, “I am opposed to ring-fencing, that is just protecting those in the existing scheme.
“First, we haven’t even won that, because there are attacks on ill health retirement. Second, 30 percent of the workforce will be retiring in the next five years. How can we expect new starters to fight to defend those who are on the old scheme when the government comes back for more. And it will come back for more.
“Lastly, there is the principle. A trade union is based on everyone standing together, not ‘I’m alright Jack’.
“We have no business worsening the pension rights of future workers. We should be about making things better. This will make things worse, but a bit more slowly. I’d call on people to go back to the branches and argue not to accept this deal. That does mean moving to strike action, but that is the question facing workers elsewhere in the public sector.”
While some areas have already indicated they are prepared to move in that direction it is going to take a highly co-ordinated grassroots campaign to win that position across the union as a whole. And, in its majority, the executive is giving every signal that it does not believe it is possible to win a strike ballot, despite the decision of the conference not to rule that out.