Pay the firefighters

By Ian Beard, FBU Rep. Whitla Street station in Socialist Voice Nov. 2002

Firefighters are completely solid behind the claim for a decent pay rise without strings, nowhere more so than in Northern Ireland. 96.7% of Northern Ireland's FBU members voted for strike action.

The first two-day strike was completely solid and the non stop hooting of car horns at the picket lines showed massive public support. When FBU leader Andy Gilchrist spoke in Belfast's Transport House there was an electric mood among the more than 500 firefighters who crammed into the hall to hear him.

Friefighters are angry that having made the case for a professional wage for a professional job, Tony Blair has counter attacked with an attempt to erode conditions and introduce so-called "reforms" that would lead to a worse service.

It is now recognised that we carry out a skilled and dangerous job that involves not just fighting fires, but dealing with transport accidents, chemical spillages and other potential disasters. We work long and unsocial hours with 15 hour night shifts yet get no overtime, shift or unsocial hours allowance.

Yet George Bain came up with only 4% for this year on condition that we accept his strings. We are not opposed to change and real reform that would lead to an improved service.

But Bain is about smashing the power of the FBU, not giving the public better fire protection. He wants flexible shifts so that there is less solidarity among our members. He wants mixed full time and retained crews even though this could mean slower responses as we wait for part timers to arrive.

He wants to bring in outside managers from the private sector, people who are good at attacking workers' rights but, like George Bain, know nothing about firefighting. While talking about the number of people applying to be firefighters he wants us to work overtime, even to work as retained firefighters, in our time off, all of which would mean less jobs for which to apply.

No firefighter wants to strike but we have been left with no option. We are fighting, not just for a decent wage but to protect the service from Bain and Blair's so-called reforms. It is the government who are threatening to escalate this dispute, asking the army to cross picket lines to take the red fire engines and even threatening to use the law to sack us for striking.

If the army do use our fire engines, this will just make matters worse. They are not trained to use the equipment but we will have no appliances to use if there are life threatening emergencies to which we want to respond despite the strike.

Blair wants to make an example of the FBU and then go on to hold down wages and attack conditions for other public sector workers. We are absolutely determined that he will not succeed. We will continue with our action until such times as we have an acceptable offer that guarantees us a professional rate for the job.

We are appealing to other trade unions and to workers generally to stand by us. If we win, it will be a victory for every worker and could be the start of a struggle for decent wages and conditions for all.




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