LONDON firefighters staged a successful strike on Saturday 23rd October in protest at management threats to sack all who refuse to sign up to new working conditions.
They also plan to strike on Monday 1st November and have announced another strike, for 47 hours, from Friday 5th November to Sunday 7th November.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Today London’s 5,600 firefighters did the last thing they wanted to do. They went on strike for eight hours, leaving the capital without their expertise.
“It was an orderly, disciplined but solid strike. Eight out of 10 of them voted in the ballot, and of those, eight out of ten voted in favour of the strike. All of them supported it on the day.”
“This wasn’t a fight we sought or wanted. London Fire Brigade wants changes in shift patterns; we are willing to negotiate changes. But we do expect to negotiate them; we won’t have them imposed on us by the threat of sacking all our members. That’s what LFB tried to do.”
But the LFB has so far refused to negotiate and the FBU has named 5th to 7th November as the date for its third strike in this dispute.
In an article in the Guardian, Matt Wrack gave more details on the process that led to the strike and why the union had no choice.
“Our disagreement with the LFB did not arise on 11th August,” he said. “There's a specific background, and a general one. The LFB was acting under section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. If, 90 days after the start of this process, we have not reached an agreement which is satisfactory to the employer they have placed themselves in a position where they may legally fire all 5,600, and offer them re-employment on unilaterally imposed contracts.
It is a process which is designed to avoid having to negotiate a settlement. Why negotiate when you can sack everyone and invite them back on new contracts? It is also a process that is spreading; 26,000 workers at Birmingham city council have received similar letters under section 188; so too have 8,500 at Sheffield city council. It is a real return to Victorian values: "Do it our way or clear off!"
In the LFB our negotiations were originally about shift patterns.
“Until 11th August, talks were being conducted in what both sides recognised was a constructive spirit. Currently London firefighters work two day shifts a week of nine hours each, from 9am to 6pm, and two night shifts of 15 hours each, from 6pm to 9am.
“The employer wants a new system of two 12-hour day shifts from 8am to 8pm, and two 12-hour night shifts, from 8pm to 8am.
“We oppose this, for two reasons. First, it is known that the LFB wants to cut down on night-time fire cover, and the Fire Brigades Union believes that this is the LFB's main reason for wanting to change shift patterns.
“Having equal length day and night shifts will make it administratively easier to achieve. The justification for cutting night-time fire cover is that there are fewer fires at night. This is true, but the fires that do occur at night tend to be major ones, and are reported at a later stage. Night time is when most fire deaths occur.
“Cuts in night-time cover will mean some fire stations will close or certain fire engines will be withdrawn from service at night. This will certainly mean that sometime, a life will be lost which would otherwise have been saved.
“Second, the new patterns would make it very hard for firefighters with young families to see much of their children. Because of the physical demands of the job, frontline firefighters tend to be relatively young men and women, and many of them have young families.
“All the same, we've made it clear we are prepared to find a way through, and until 11th August I thought the London Fire Brigade were too.
“Here is what I think has changed. The London fire and emergency planning authority is chaired by Councillor Brian Coleman, a particularly aggressive Tory who seems to take pleasure in sneering at firefighters, and minimising the dangers and difficulties of their work and the skill required to do it. Coleman's most recent contribution to the debate was to confirm that the 11th August letter was ‘as good as’ a letter of dismissal, adding: ‘I'm quite relaxed about that... firefighters who don't sign the new contract won't be re-employed.’
“To get us back to work right now, we only need the dismissal letters withdrawn. But in the long term, an employer who shows some respect for our members' dedication and professionalism would work wonders.”