Around 150 London firefighers in the FBU union gathered last week to launch a ballot for industrial action short of a strike. This could begin a major battle over jobs, conditions and fire safety.
The struggle to stop cuts in London is part of a wider national campaign to defend the fire service. There is even the threat to sack two entire brigades.
The meeting began with a minute’s silence for Ewan Williamson from Lothian and Borders Fire & Rescue Service who was killed while fighting a fire in July. This tragedy should remind everyone of the vital and dangerous job that firefighters perform.
Yet firefighters are facing a series of attacks.
Ben Sprung, the FBU’s London regional organiser, told the meeting that the ballot was a response to the “belligerent and uncompromising stance of London Fire Brigade principal managers and heads of department”.
The brigade ripped up an existing agreement and imposed tougher sickness rules. It imposed a draconian drugs and alcohol policy. It also cut subsistence payments when on training and is pushing for the introduction of 12-hour shifts.
Ian Leahair, the FBU executive member for London, said management “is not looking for compromise, the bosses want to be able to dictate what we do”.
He said that if there is a strong yes vote for industrial action, the union will organise a ban on pre-arranged overtime.
Matt Wrack, the FBU general secretary, said that the bigger picture was the economic crisis and the government seeking to slash public spending in order to recoup the cash it has handed out to the bankers.
He argued that since the Bain Review during the last national strike of 2002-3 the government had sought to undermine the emergency role and professional status of firefighters.
He insisted that “the only organisation which protects the service for the public is the FBU”.
Brigade chiefs are pushing through cuts across Britain.
The most vicious attacks are in South Yorkshire where the fire authority has threatened to sack all 744 firefighters if they do not sign new contracts of employment.
Lincolnshire has announced plans to do the same to its 112 firefighters.
These cuts must be stopped. The union has called a national rally in Barnsley on Monday 28 September.
Essex Fire & Rescue Service is also set to implement a rolling programme of cuts to the frontline 999 emergency response service.
The result will be fewer firefighters spread more thinly across Essex, leaving too few firefighters on duty to crew all the fire engines.
FBU members there are balloting for action short of a strike over the issue.
However, ruthless and determined managements may not back down in the face of the proposed level of action.
Activists should continue the debate around stepping-up to strikes while building the biggest yes vote in the ballot, and the biggest possible demonstration.
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