Arguments for the firefighters

Submitted by AWL on 29 November, 2002 - 12:14
  • We've been modernising for years
  • MPs: because we're worth it
  • Hey big spenders
  • Public sector pay: going up!
  • Some big pay deals
  • Education: What modernisation meant for us
  • Jobs must go
  • March for the firefighters

We've been modernising for years

"Firefighters and the FBU have been modernising the fire service for years. We've taken the initiative on training, developing skills and working in the community on fire prevention.

Tony Blair's petulant speech on Monday (25 November) has made firefighters in Belfast more determined. How dare he tell the firefighters or any other public sector workers they can't have a decent pay rise. This is a man who's job pays £171,554 pa. Over the last 6 years the job of Prime Minister has had a massive 85% pay rise, no doubt because he thinks he's worth it."

Jim Quinn, FBU, Belfast

The FBU have put a reasoned case against Blair's "modernisation" proposals and they've made their own case for modernisation. Jill Mountford analyses the Government agenda and explains what firefighters say in response. In the next issue of Solidarity we will look in detail at the FBU alternative modernisation proposals.

When the Government and the bosses start talking "modernisation" every trade unionist should start taking action.

"Modernisation" is the euphemism used by New Labour and public sector employers to dress up vicious attacks on working conditions, savage cuts in pay and jobs, and the brutal closure and privatisation of services. "Modernisation" is the sugared pill that devastates lives through unemployment, and blights communities with low pay and third-rate public services.

"Modernisation" is the Government's mantra in the firefighters' dispute. Blair and the employers are adamant there will be no pay rise for the firefighters unless there is "modernisation".

As a London firefighter told Solidarity, "We want 40%. Sixteen per cent is a starting point for negotiations, not the settling point, and certainly not 16% over two or three years. That's like promising us a 100% pay rise over the next 25 years. Thanks for nothing. We won't buy any of it if it means giving up our working conditions, giving up the overtime ban, reducing the number of firefighters in the service or allowing the service to go further towards privatisation, and worse of all, if it puts public safety at risk."

They say:

Change shift patterns, including part-time working and mixed full-time/retained crewing of appliances.

We say:

The FBU is in favour of creating part-time job-share positions for firefighters based in fire stations who would crew engines with full-timers. Full-time and retained fire fighters work together fighting fires already. But this proposal is all about cost cutting. The employers want to reduce the number of full-time staff and rely more on retained staff. Full-time staff, based in fire stations, have a quicker response time to fires. Relying more on retained staff who have to travel from home before a joint crew can go out will inevitably put lives at risk.

They say:

Allow firefighters to work voluntary pre-planned overtime, thereby increasing available resources to meet demand and boost earnings.

We say:

We made an agreement in 1977 to ban pre-planned overtime (effectively creating a fourth shift in the fire service) and we got people off the dole and into socially useful jobs.

The argument is simple. If there is work to be done beyond the long 42 hour week firefighters work now, then new jobs should be created. How can the employers claim that a longer working week of around 48 hours is modernising?

Workers fought over the last 150 years to shorten the working week and with good reason. At the moment firefighters know a year in advance what shift they'll be working. This is family-friendly. If you have to work shifts then surely it is better to know well in advance and be able to plan family life around them.

This has to be one of the most spurious proposals. It has nothing to do with getting more women into the fire service. It will certainly make no difference to people from ethnic minorities coming into the service. So far, their proposed changes to the shift patterns are unproven, untested and undisclosed.

This proposal is about breaking the strength of the FBU.

They say:

Provide joint services at fire stations with other emergency services. All staff to train as paramedics.

We say:

We're trained as firefighters. We have first aid training and it is our job, if we arrive first on the scene of an accident or fire, to administer first aid until the professional ambulance service arrive. The paramedics are part of the ambulance service. They do the job they're trained to do exceedingly well and deserve to be paid a professional rate of pay for it.

This proposal is about cuts in the emergency services. It's about getting firefighters to do two jobs. It's about sending fire engines out to an accident that an ambulance should be at. And if the fire engine is attending an accident who attends the fire? The answer to this is to properly fund the fire service and properly fund the ambulance service.

They say:

Fire crews should do more medical assistance.

We say:

Fire crews already play a vital role in medical assistance. This includes resuscitation and using defibrillators where they're available (whether a brigade carries defibrillators is down to individual policy and is usually determined by funding and not fire crews). This is about making cuts in the fire and in the ambulance services and it's the public who will pay the price.

They say:

Review fire service provision in relation to risk, including restructuring of working hours and closure/opening of stations in relation to risk.

We say:

Just before the general election in 2001, Whitehall produced a review of the fire service. One of the things the review said was that Britain would need to double the number of fire stations to meet the demands of the 21st century. The review was buried.

In late 2002, the Government and the employers want to close some fire stations. They want to reduce the number of firefighters working on the night shift, despite more deaths from fire and smoke inhalation happening during the night.

At the moment around 80% of fire service budgets go on salaries. As far as the Government and the bosses are concerned there is no alternative way of saving money other than to cut the wages bill. A cut that will cost lives. We say: put people before profit.

They say:

A new negotiating body to be introduced with greater discretion at local level on pay and conditions.

We say:

No thanks. We've got a negotiating body. It may not be working very well at the moment, but we're certain of one thing: local negotiating will be used to divide and rule firefighters and operators. And this is no way forward. Instead of a national pay dispute once every 25 years, there'll be 58 different pay disputes every year. This is just another modernisation proposal designed to weaken the strength of the FBU and fire crews all over the country.

MPs: because we're worth it

Robin Cook on the MP's 40% pay rise: "I do not think we impress the public if we put a lower value on our worth…if we believe our work is important we should not shrink from putting a proper value on it." Hansard 5 July 2001

Working-class people struggled for MPs to be paid. We wanted working class people to be able to afford to go to Parliament and represent our interests. The MP's salary was finally introduced in 1911.

These days, MPs' salaries are fixed at a high level, so the argument goes (i.e. according to MPs) so that the "best people" can be attracted to the job. They mean people who would otherwise earn big salaries - barristers like Tony Blair, multi-millionaire company directors like Michael Heseltine.

MPs now earn £55,118 with large allowances for staffing, office expenses, travel and the additional costs of working outside London. Nothing has been overlooked on their behalf from their 7p per mile for push-bike journeys, to the pension rights that their unmarried partners enjoy. Such things are unlikely to be extended to the rest of the population soon.

We know MPs got 40%, but did you know the salary for the job of Prime Minister has increased from £94,642 in 1996 to £171,554 in 2002 - an 85% pay rise over six years, and with no strings attached. Not a bad deal!

No expense spared for their working conditions too. The cost of Portcullis House, new offices for MPs in Whitehall, is a total of £231 million.

Some comparable pay?

Governments always think the police are worth paying. The starting salary for a police officer, after eighteen weeks training is £26,601. That must be because police pay has increased by more than inflation every year since 1979.

Do you think Tony Blair's special advisers do a hard and necessary job? Well Fiona Millar - pay £75,000 a year - is Director of Events. She organises parties and Cherie Blair's PR. We could do that.

A captain in the army (straight out of university, via a minor public school) gets £30,024, rising to £40,135.40. Although a lot of captains, if they've got the "right background", get to the top ranks and thus can look forward to £50-60k. Not as much as ex-army chap Iain Duncan Smith gets, though.

Hey big spenders

Isn't it funny the way the Government can always find money for some things. Such as…

  • £22 billion so far for PFI projects with a further £80 billion in the pipeline. Equivalent to one year's social security bill.
  • £35,000 to Richard Branson in May 2000 for advice on how to make the NHS more consumer friendly.
  • A 40% pay rise for themselves.
  • Millions (no-one knows how much) for the 300 plus (no-one knows how many) Government Taskforces. Including the Better Regulation Task Force (job: cut down on bureaucracy) and the Knowledge Network Project (a computer system that spits out the right New Labour line at the press of a button).
  • Millions (no-one knows how much) for the 1,000 plus unelected quangos. Lots do good work in areas such as disability and public health but some are a bit more dubious e.g., the Advisory Committee on Distinction Awards, that is, annual awards for NHS consultants. There is no equivalent for people who work in the emergency services, or other NHS staff!
  • An extra £3.5 billion to the defence budget in this year's spending review - the biggest increase for 20 years. All the better to bomb Iraq to bits.
  • £28 million to close the Dome (after 1.024 billion was spent developing it in the first place). Plus £3 million a year to maintain it until it is taken over by its new owners. It is now worth £240 million but the Government decided to give it away.
  • £4.4 million (2001) for the 80 Government Special Advisors.
  • £10.8 million total for running Tony Blair's private office per year.

Public sector pay: going up!

The firefighters' pay claim is not unique. Many other groups of public sector workers are in a similar position, have suffered years of very low pay increases and seen their standard of living decline, and now need to win big pay increases simply to "catch up". The figure of 16%, which the firefighters had agreed to negotiate on with the employers is also not unusual. According to the Financial Times 26 groups of public sector workers have agreed long-term deals, with above-inflation increases (in some cases way above inflation). Some of these deals have modernisation strings, but in many cases, in the civil service for instance, it is not possible to "modernise". All of these workers deserve the pay. Why are the fire fighters a "special case" - a case of a group of workers not worth paying. Could it be because the government wants to beat down a strong and militant union?

Some big pay deals

Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 25.5% over 4 years

Teachers in Scotland 23.1% over 3 years

Welsh Assembly 22% over 3 years

Scottish Prison Service 20.5% over 3 years

Ministry of Defence 20% over 4 years

Education: What modernisation meant for us

By Ivan Wels, a Nottingham teacher

John Prescott says that a settlement for the firefighters would not be fair on teachers and nurses. How dare Prescott speak on our behalf!

We should support the firefighters not only in their claim for increased pay but also in their opposition to "modernisation". Teachers have seen the effects of modernisation in education over the past 10 years and unfortunately our unions have not protected us from this.

"Modernisation" in schools has seen the introduction of a rigid curriculum, tests and league tables. All these things along with the local management of schools has pitted school against school and created a massive increase in workload. We as teachers have seen the devastating effects that this modernisation programme has had upon our students: deterioration in morale and behaviour. We have seen the devastating effects of privatisation.

"Modernisation" by this government means saving money through job cuts by undermining the services that are delivered and by handing over public money to the private sector. The firefighters are right to oppose the Government's agenda and we fully support them.

Jobs must go

Prescott speaks:

"If you've got that [number of firefighters] leaving from the labour force in the next two or three years it seems an ample opportunity to discuss how you might deal with the more efficient utilisation of labour without redundancies or sackings."

Prescott translated:

"Jobs must go".

March for the firefighters

As we go to press the FBU are planning a national demonstration. It looks set to be on
7 DECEMBER in London.

We should pull out all the stops to mobilise our trade unions, Labour Party branches, student unions for this event.


Submitted by Janine on Fri, 29/11/2002 - 12:04

They (the employers and government) also say: Reduce staffing levels at night.

Their argument is that there are fewer call-outs at night. The truth is that more people die in fires at night, so although there are fewer call-outs, they are more critical and life-saving.

BTW, I'm am getting SO sick of people saying "They sleep on night shifts you know". What the bloody hell do you expect them to do?!

On overtime ...

In industries where there is voluntary, pre-planned overtime, several significant things happen: basic wages fall back; women do less overtime than men and are therefore paid less; and workers start scrapping with each other about who is getting the overtime.

No thanks.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 12/12/2002 - 13:04

In reply to by Janine

Having worked so-called 'sleeping night shifts' for years in residential work, I can assure you it's not like sleping in your own bed. You have to be able to wake instantaneously to deal with emergencies. You can't drink, take drugs, or do any of those other relaxing things you might like to do at home. If you have a family you have to organise and pay for childcare. It plays havoc with your social life, your family life and your sleep patterns. So why the hell shouldn't they get paid?

Gerry b
e-mail: office at

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