A planned 48 hour strike by firefighters in Hertfordshire, which was due to start at 6pm on Thursday of last week, was called off at the last minute in order for union negotiators to consult with branches over the latest offer from employers.
The strike was planned as the latest action in a long running dispute between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Herts fire authority over cost cutting plans.
The employer’s latest proposal offers a few concessions on planned cuts to full time firefighter posts and equipment, but insists on closing Radlett and Bovingdon fire stations, the two part time stations at the heart of the dispute.
The fire authority has sent out redundancy notices to 23 retained (part time) firefighters and removed the fire engines from Radlett and Bovingdon. The employers say they plan to permanently close the two stations on 31 July.
FBU negotiators will spend this week touring branches across Herts to discuss the proposal with members. A decision on the next steps in the dispute is expected to be made on Monday of next week.
It is likely that the county’s retained firefighters will reject the offer, says Peter Cargill, officer in charge at Radlett and retained firefighters’ representative on Herts FBU.
“The retained part of Herts is still staunchly against the proposal and the closures of two fire stations,” he told Socialist Worker, adding that this was the view reflected at a meeting of retained firefighters held on Friday of last week.
The decision to call off the industrial action while the negotiating team consults the membership was made on Thursday afternoon, hours before the 48 hour strike was due to start.
Some firefighters are critical of this decision. One FBU member told Socialist Worker that the Thursday meeting overturned a decision at a meeting the previous day to continue with the strike while considering the new proposal.
There is also concern that the FBU nationally has not called a public rally or demonstration in support of the Hertfordshire firefighters.
There are vibrant community campaigns in both Radlett and Bovingdon against the closure of the stations, and FBU members say their stance against cuts is popular with the public.
Moreover, many observers say the cuts plans in Hertfordshire – which are inspired by the treasury’s Gershon review of spending that demands “efficiency savings” across the public sector – could just be the tip of the iceberg.
The Yorkshire Post this week reported that South Yorkshire fire authority is considering bringing in privatised firefighters from the Danish firm Falk in the event of a dispute over cuts with South Yorkshire FBU escalating into strike action.
In the past the government has provided military cover whenever firefighters have gone on strike, but it has refused to do so in the Hertfordshire dispute.
Meanwhile the FBU on Teesside has announced it will ballot its members for strike action against cuts.
If the Hertfordshire action is not properly supported, there is a danger that employers will get away with their attempts to break the dispute by dividing full time and part time firefighters.
This would demoralise the union and give a green light to every fire authority in the country to press ahead with neo-liberal cuts programmes that would put lives and jobs at risk.