The struggle against £3.5 million of cuts to the fire service on Merseyside looks set to intensify this week, with firefighters in the FBU union scheduled to go on strike for over a week.
The strikers plan to walk out at 10am on Thursday of this week for four days. They will then return to work for two hours before striking again for a further four days.
There will be no army cover for the duration of the strike - the government says troops are too tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Merseyside Fire Authority - made up of representatives of all three major parties - wants to cut 120 emergency response posts, some one in ten firefighters.
There are also plans to axe four night time fire engines and 15 emergency control room operators.
“Local fire crews have shown the massive opposition to these cuts and there is a clear mandate for strike action,” says Les Skarratts, brigade secretary for Merseyside FBU.
“We are happy to enter talks - but we have not held a ballot and named strike dates just to get a seat at the negotiating table,” he adds.
FBU members in Merseyside voted last month by three to one in favour of strike action against the cuts. The first four strike days were announced on Monday of last week, with the second four days announced on Friday.
The scale of the FBU’s proposed action has caused employers to panic. Merseyside Fire Authority is offering to pay firefighters time-and-a-half if they break the strike.
Managers have also called on firefighters to strike “responsibly” by limiting their action to low risk hours.
The neo-liberal cuts programme in Merseyside follows a pattern of attacks on fire services across the country.
Earlier this year firefighters in Hertfordshire took strike action against similar plans to close stations and slash the workforce there. These plans were drawn up by the same group of “time and motion consultants” involved in Merseyside.
There are signs that employers are not willing to fight on more than one front at a time.
Last week Cleveland Fire Authority amended its proposed cuts package in response to a three to one vote in favour of strike action by the FBU on Teesside.
The new proposals included a pledge to maintain staffing levels on fire engines. Steve Watson, secretary of Cleveland FBU, says fire crews have “carefully considered” the proposals and have agreed to them.
But employers look keen to dig their heels in on Merseyside. The strike there will be the first such action against the cuts in a major metropolitan area. It also involves far more sustained periods of strike action than seen in Hertfordshire.
Support from the FBU nationally will be crucial to winning the dispute on Merseyside. The union is appealing for donations to its hardship fund to support the strikers there.
But the lesson of the Hertfordshire dispute is that brigades should not be left to fight cuts programmes alone.
The RedWatch rank and file firefighters group is calling on the FBU to organise a national demonstration in Merseyside to mobilise public support and build solidarity action across the union.
Donations should be sent to Merseyside Hardship Fund, HSBC Bank, sort code 40-29-28, account number 91320165. To obtain copies of the RedWatch leaflet on the Merseyside dispute, e-mail [email protected]