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Why London firefighters oppose 'reforms'
On Thursday 16 September, 2,500 firefighters marched through central London to a rally outside the London fire authority headquarters in Southwark (see Brutal bosses? Time to fight back!). All London firefighters have been threatened with dismissal if they do not agree to new contracts that specify changes to working conditions. Following the demonstration, Sarah Sachs-Eldridge spoke to the Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack.
What is the London fire authority proposing?
The proposals in London are to change the shift system. We work a day shift and a night shift and the proposal is to equalise the hours between the two. For our members, the concern is that this would disrupt their family lives significantly. It would make it a far less family-friendly shift system.
For the public our concern is that similar changes elsewhere have led the way to reducing emergency cover at night. That means reducing the number of firefighters, fire stations and fire engines that are available for calls at night. That is a way of cutting the service for the public. So there's concern for our own members and there's concern for public safety.
The argument that the employers sometimes use is that there are fewer fires at night so you can have fewer firefighters. Our response is that if you have a fire, and they still do happen, actually it's more dangerous because people tend to be asleep, they react more slowly, they realise there's a fire later than they would during the day and therefore lives and property are at greater risk.
If you have a fire at night it doesn't reduce the number of firefighters you need to tackle it. You need exactly the same number of firefighters to tackle a fire whenever it occurs.
The fire authority seems to have used very heavy handed methods to get their proposals through.
They have. They have actually started the process of terminating contracts of employment. They're legally obliged to go through a three-month consultation period collectively. That's now underway. At the end of that individuals will then effectively be given an individual notice of termination of contract. Yes it is a very draconian measure. It is similar to what is now happening in Birmingham city council I believe. It's a way of forcing through changes where an agreement can't be reached.
Do you think firefighters can resist these attacks?
Yes, there is a mood to fight them. We will very shortly be getting the first ballot result for action short of strike [95% voted for action with a 75% turnout]. As we announced [at the rally outside the London fire authority meeting] we have given the employer notice now that we will be moving to a strike ballot. That will start in a week's time. As people saw yesterday with this huge turnout of London firefighters on the march there is a big mood to resist it.
A number of unions had speakers at the rally.
That was very welcome. Speakers came to speak and pledge support from PCS, NUT, RMT, Unison, and they were very well received and I think there is a growing feeling that this is part of a generalised attack on working people and on the public sector in particular.
There also seemed to be a lot of delegations from other parts of the country.
I think that firefighters across the union always tend to support each other. This march was called at quite late notice because the fire authority refused to tell us where they were meeting until the very last minute so it was hard to plan a route.
Delegations from outside London, otherwise, could have been quite a bit bigger. But yes it was good to see people from around the UK coming across to support.
The Tory London Fire authority chair, Brian Coleman, seems pretty intransigent.
He is particularly intransigent and confrontational and very hostile to unions in general and to the FBU in particular. Our London members are involved in a range of protests. They went to one in Barnet the other day where Coleman is a councillor.
At the moment they've not given us any indication of whether they're prepared to move. So it looks like the action is going to proceed.
It seems that firefighters are coming under particular attack with disputes in Essex, Yorkshire, Wales and now London.
We've had a series of attacks for the past seven years under so-called modernisation, instigated by the previous government, which have now rolled into the unfolding cuts that we're facing under the coalition.
So yes, we've had a number of attacks during that period, a number of industrial battles and I see it getting worse.
Is there room to make cuts?
In the fire service there is a whole range of activities we have to do when not actually fighting fires - we have to train, do fire safety work, fire preventative work and so on.
Like all other public services the fire service is labour-intensive and the way you make savings, if that's what you want to do, means cutting the wage bill in one way or another. And cutting jobs is one way of doing that.
Why do you think the bosses are trying to make these changes?
The attacks are part of the result of an economic crisis which wasn't of our making. So the previous government bailed out the banks without asking anyone for their views or consulting anyone.
The tax payer, ie working people, and their families are now being asked to pay the price of that and part of that price is apparently we're going to see our public services slashed by 25% or more.
Alongside that there's clearly an ideological aspect to it. I think that the coalition is taking advantage of the situation to drive through changes that they want to see. It will lead to increased privatisation in education, health services and a real transformation of how services are delivered.
In The Socialist 22 September 2010:
Socialist Party youth and students
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news and analysis
Organising to save jobs and services
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party campaigns