Time to organise the solidarity
- Jane Clarke, an FBU activist in Bedfordshire, spoke to Solidarity
- What do firefighters want?
The union is ballotting its members from 27 September. The question on the ballot paper is: "Are you prepared to take discontinuous strike action?" I expect a very high yes vote.
Most people are expecting an injunction against the ballot, or some kind of move by the Government to ban strikes in emergency services on grounds of the war with Iraq. If we can't take legal strike action, then we might as well just walk out of the door straight away. There's certainly a mood for such a response. How large that mood is, I'm not sure.
But the union members are really, really impatient. We have had a number of unofficial actions in various areas, answering 999 calls only, and a lot of members want the union to move much quicker than the legal process is allowing us to do. If the Government or the courts take that legal process away, then we'll have to make our own decision on what to do.
The ballot finishes on 18 October. The union has to give seven days' notice of strike action, so that takes us up to the 25th. Action on the ballot mandate has to be started within 28 days. The key date for us is that our pay rise was due on 7 November. I would expect action around that date.
From the branches in my region, the Eastern Region, a number of resolutions are being pushed up to the union's Executive Committee (EC) about what sort of action we take. Our rule book leaves the decision on action to the EC, but members aren't necessarily happy about that.
From a number of disputes in the FBU - Merseyside, Essex, and so on - people have experience of what is the best kind of action to take. There's a call for the union to set up a national strike committee that represents some of those experiences, so that the decision is not just left in the hands of the EC.
The resolutions that are going round at the moment are also calling for a minimum of eight days for the first strike action, rather than just having one day and moving forward from that. The first round of action should be a substantial block of time. Andy Gilchrist [the union general secretary] has said that there will be a substantial initial strike, but what the EC will go for, I don't know.
There are moves to increase rank-and-file communication within the union up and down the country. The structures of the union confine you to regions, brigades and branches, but a number of activists up and down the country talking to each other to produce a left network.
There is no rank-and-file organisation in the FBU. I would like there to be a rank-and-file organisation. One is developing, in embryonic form. It needs to developed quite quickly in this dispute.
I think the Socialist Alliance has a role to play. The Socialist Alliance should have got more of a handle on this dispute than it has at the moment.
Socialist Alliance members in the FBU should get together. At the Socialist Alliance trade union conference in March this year that networking should have started, but in fact, for whatever reason, Socialist Alliance members in the FBU do not work as a group. We've had a number of national demonstrations, and Socialist Alliance leaflets have not gone in. The Socialist Alliance organisation needs to pull itself together now.
It's absolutely essential that we have socialist firefighters coming together to put our case on the basis of every worker's right to a decent wage. The argument about us being paid a "professional" wage, or being more important than other workers, comes from the right-wing press. I haven't heard it among the rank and file members.
There has been a big debate in the union around firefighting being a dangerous job, so that firefighters should be paid more than control staff, but that argument has been had and isn't there any more. Firefighters are supporting pay parity for control staff.
Where I live, when UNISON were out in dispute over local government pay, a number of firefighters went in their fire engines down the picket lines in support of those workers. We explained what our claim was, and that we didn't think we were better than local government workers. We have our claim, and we support other workers in their claims. It's a shame that UNISON gave in on their dispute, because there was a chance there to unify a number of workers.
In the fire service, the non-uniform staff are UNISON members. In my brigade the FBU has approached UNISON; they are supporting the dispute 100% and say they won't cross picket lines. That could lead to disciplinary action against UNISON members, which gives them legal cause to take solidarity action.
Elsewhere the health and safety issue raised by the rail unions is paramount. Workers should be saying to their bosses that there is a health and safety problem in the workplace if they do not have fire cover. That is a means of making sure that there is solidarity action.
I think there's a case now for firefighters' support committees, in the same way that we had miners' support groups in the 1984-5 miners' strike. We've had firefighters' disputes in Merseyside, in Derbyshire and in Essex, and a lot of the support has come from fellow FBU members. In a national strike, it is absolutely essential to spread support to other trade unionists, and to community groups, the Socialist Alliance, and other political groups.
What do firefighters want?
Why is the Fire Brigade Union asking for a new pay deal?
Firefighters and emergency fire control operators have their pay set by a formula that is 25 years old and doesn't give a fair wage for the job they do.
Do firefighters and emergency fire control operators get extra pay for working nights and weekends?
No. Firefighters and emergency fire control operators get no shift/weekend/night allowance, unlike most people who work a shift system.
Firefighters and emergency fire control operators do get a lot of time off don't they?
Fire fighters and emergency fire control operators work a 42 hour week not the standard 38 hours worked in industry.
So how much do firefighters and emergency fire control operators earn ?
A fully qualified firefighter after four years training earns £21,531 with the starting pay at under £17,000. An emergency fire control operator earns £19,827 with the minimum starting pay at £14,163.
Isn't £21,531 a fair wage?
Firefighters have 11% of their wages deducted for their pension scheme for when they retire at a maximum of 55 or 60 for officers. They also work more hours per week than normal so their hourly pay is in fact lower and so is their take home pay.
Wouldn't an extra payment help firefighters and emergency fire control staff who can't afford to live in some areas of the country ?
Firefighters and emergency fire control staff do the same job protecting the public across the country and the risks they face are the same from Cornwall to Scotland. Firefighters and emergency fire control staff should all be paid a fair rate for the job they do and that job is the same no matter where they serve.
Don't some firefighters and emergency fire control staff work on their three days off?
Some firefighters and emergency fire control staff do have to work on some of their rest days to earn enough to live where they are sent to work. A fair rate of pay would mean they didn't have to work on their rest days to make ends meet.
Do fire service employers think that firefighters and emergency fire control staff are underpaid?
Fire service employers have agreed to a joint approach to the government to ensure firefighters and emergency fire control staff are fairly paid for the job they do.
Has the firefighters job changed that much since their last pay formula claim in 1977?
Firefighters today face all sorts of incidents from terrorist acts to chemical spills, from car and rail crashes to property fires. Firefighters also undertake safety inspections, do community education programmes for children and adults, and still complete their training courses and exams as well as fitness training and lectures on a daily basis. The training of a firefighter continues throughout their 30 year career.
What is a fair rate of pay for a firefighter?
A rate of pay that recognises that firefighters have to train for four years to qualify and which reflects a fair wage for people who put their lives on the line and their skills to the test every time they arrive at your local station for another shift.