THE GOVERNMENT’S clampdown on public sector pay has reignited last year’s fire dispute. It has led management in the Manchester brigade to slash fire cover by sending firefighters home. The danger firefighters face in their work was tragically seen over the weekend when Cardiff firefighter Richard Jenkins was killed in a fire during the early hours of the morning.
That’s the time the government claims firefighters “sleep on the job”. Also in the early hours of Tuesday morning a major blaze erupted in Manchester two minutes away from a station where every firefighter was suspended. The suspensions in Manchester have brought to the surface firefighters’ anger with the way the government has laid into them.
The events have led many Fire Brigades Union (FBU) activists to start to rediscover the confidence that marked the beginning of their pay campaign 18 months ago. Action in Manchester and elsewhere over the suspensions has caught the employers off guard.
It opens the prospect of strikes by a group of workers Tony Blair thought were beaten. At the beginning of this week Manchester chief fire officer Barry Dixon had suspended about 130 firefighters without pay. That intensified the battle between the FBU and local authority employers, who are backed by New Labour. The employers have withheld a 3.5 percent pay rise since November. This was promised under the deal that ended last year’s strikes.
Employers met FBU national leaders this week to demand the union signs up to contractual changes. These will open the way to station closures, reduced fire cover at night and getting firefighters to double up as under-trained paramedics.
That national attack lies behind the Manchester suspensions, which began on Tuesday of last week at the Salford Central station. The management offensive against 2,000 firefighters in Manchester triggered unofficial industrial action across half the UK fire service last week. Action was continuing in many areas as Socialist Worker went to press and the FBU was set to call a national demonstration in Manchester.
The FBU in Manchester has given notice of a ballot for strike action. Firefighters there were continuing to take the same principled stand that has led to the suspensions.
Talks with the employers over the national dispute broke up without agreement on Monday. The FBU conference is to reconvene in three weeks time to discuss a national ballot for action over the employers’ demands. Union activists are trying to deliver maximum solidarity for Manchester.
MANCHESTER firefighters have been suspended for taking the modest stand agreed by the FBU’s conference two weeks ago. Delegates voted unanimously to back their leadership’s call to “withdraw from implementing” last year’s pay and modernisation agreement.
The employers had in effect withdrawn from this by holding back a pay rise for over half a year, despite the FBU signing up to sweeping changes in terms and conditions. The FBU in Manchester informed management on Tuesday of last week that it was advising members to work to the terms and conditions that operated before the agreement was signed last June.
That meant not participating in a range of schemes, including training on units called IRUs. These are part of a cut price government gimmick to give the impression it is responding to the risk of a major terrorist incident. At no stage have firefighters said they will not respond to any emergency.
Firefighters at Salford Central station, who cannot be named for fear of further victimisation, spoke to Socialist Worker. One firefighter said, “There were only four of us in the mess room last Tuesday afternoon when a divisional officer arrived. It was all presented as if it was an informal chat. He asked about the union’s guidance, and those who were there said they would follow it. Next thing you know the whole watch is suspended. From there they moved on to suspend firefighters at other stations. They’ve succeeded in shutting Salford station completely and three others. The question people in Manchester have got to ask is, ‘Who is it who is denying us fire cover?’ “It’s not firefighters. We have been reporting for work as normal. But our management have been turning us away.”
News of the suspensions spread rapidly. Firefighters at other stations responded magnificently by saying they were taking the same stand. From Farnworth in Bolton to Ashton-under-Lyne station watches were suspended.
Firefighters told Socialist Worker how two divisional officers (senior managers) would turn up and refuse to deal with the whole watch. “Instead”, says one suspended firefighter, “they told us we had to go in to see them one by one and give an undertaking to do what we were ordered by the line managers. The whole thing amounts to bullying and intimidation. It sums up what the employers are after. They want us and our union broken. Manchester is not a militant area. But people have had enough. There was a lot of cynicism because people felt badly let down by the union’s national leadership during last year’s dispute. But there’s no question now that we have to stick together in Manchester and nationally. If we can’t do that the employers will feel they can get away with anything.”
As more Manchester stations said they were defying chief officer Barry Dixon’s ultimatum he faced the prospect of shutting most, if not all, of the brigade’s 41 stations.
By the early hours of Friday morning last week the overnight shifts at four stations had been sent home, while at 15 others firefighters were responding to 999 calls only.
Officers were suspended too, including the FBU officers’ branch secretary and the chair, as they stood with ordinary firefighters. With ten stations challenging management to suspend them by Thursday, the chief officer targeted particular watches.
He suspended one watch on Stretford station, but the following morning said they were reinstated and should behave as if the suspension never happened. Shutting Stretford would have taken a vital aerial appliance off the run. “One thing that has really angered people is that the chief is victimising us by treating people differently for doing the same thing,” says one firefighter. “That has blown apart his claim in the local press that he is being consistent. It’s about divide and rule. We are going to stay united.”
BY THE start of this week every station in Manchester was taking some form of action. Firefighters at Gorton station went as far as to strike for two hours last week. There is no doubt that a walkout across the brigade would call the chief officer’s bluff.
Management is divided, with chief officer Dixon and the chair of the fire authority, Fred Walker, passing the buck between each other. “Support from other brigades and from other trade unionists is vital,” says Kevin Brown, secretary of Manchester FBU.
“Our members here are determined that they will not bow to bullying. The messages from other areas and the unofficial action by rank and file firefighters have strengthened that feeling.” FBU reps in Merseyside, London and other areas were to discuss following Manchester’s example this week. Firefighters at one north London station tried last weekend to get action going.
“Speed is of the essence,” says one Manchester firefighter. “FBU members need to know what they do is making a difference. We need to beat back the chief officer in Manchester, or other chiefs and authorities will follow his attack. If we win here, it will make it easier to draw a line in the sand nationally and stop retreating over our conditions.”
THE GOVERNMENT and much of the media claim the national dispute is about “lazy” firefighters wanting to sleep on night shifts. That’s a lie. The employers want to get rid of “stand down time”, which allows firefighters on night shifts, which are 15 hours long, to rest between midnight and 7am when they are not working and responding to emergencies.
The government sees that as key to breaking up the shift system that guarantees fire cover at night, when most fire deaths occur. The attack on stand down time is part of a drive to reduce night cover and get firefighters to make up for an underfunded ambulance service.
Firefighters are resisting a government offensive against public sector workers and defending a service we all rely on. They deserve every ounce of the support they got during last year’s strikes.
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