Firefighters turn up heat over jobs

Strikes on Merseyside: Green Goddesses called in as new stoppages escalate dispute with critical nationwide implications
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The Independent Online
Fidel Castro stares down on the organisers of the two-month-old campaign of industrial action by firefighters on Merseyside. Senior managers believe that the pictorial presence of the Cuban leader is somehow appropriate.

Union officials venture that an apt picture for the office of the fire chiefs might be that of a certain Italian leader with a fondness for uniforms and a yearning for Abyssinia.

The personal enmity between the two sides, however, belies the seriousness of the dispute and the importance of its outcome to the fire service throughout Britain.

Superficially the argument is more of a chip pan fire than a serious conflagration. The Fire Brigades' Union has registered its determination to resist a management plan to shed 20 jobs out of 1,336 through natural wastage, and to cut annual leave by three days.

Fire authorities all over the country are faced with budgetary constraints and are watching the Merseyside conflict with considerable interest. One senior management source in the North-West has been told that the Home Office "will not allow" management to lose the dispute.

Next year local government is expecting even tougher cuts with the possibility of compulsory redundancies - an eventuality the union has pledged to oppose with a national strike.

On Merseyside the FBU has already staged nine separate stoppages since 17 August: eight strikes of up to nine hours and a day-long walkout which ended at midnight last night. A more intensive phase of action begins this weekend. There is a strike from 6pm on Friday to 6pm on Saturday and six hours later firefighters walk out again for another 24 hours until midnight on Sunday. Another day-long stoppage starts at 9am on Monday.

A fleet of ageing "Green Goddess" fire engines crewed by Welsh Guards, together with 20 vehicles supplied by the RAF, have already been in action. Green Goddesses took three hours to put out a blaze at Broadway indoor market in Norris Green, Liverpool. It was the most serious of a total of 49 incidents dealt with in the first 19 hours of the stoppage although no one was injured.

"It took a long time to deal with because there was so much dense, acrid smoke and it was very difficult to trace the seat of the fire itself," said Captain Barney Branston of the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards.

The strikers are convinced that right is on their side. It is a conviction that seems to have grown since the dispute started. While 8 out of 10 firefighters voted for nine-hour strikes, 9 in 10 backed an extension of the stoppages to 24 hours. All employees up to and including senior divisional officers have supported the action.

Yesterday 800 Merseyside firefighters took their argument to the Fire '95 conference in Harrogate for senior officers where they lobbied the Home Office minister, Baroness Blatch.

En route to North Yorkshire yesterday, a fire station officer from Aintree said that management would be "back for more" if they agreed to cuts. "We could lose another 100 jobs next year if they win this dispute. It's the thin end of the wedge."

Les Baker, a firefighter with 20 years' experience from Crosby station, said he and his colleagues were not just determined to maintain their terms and conditions, but also the quality of the service. "A lot of people devote their lives to the service and are sometimes asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. We don't think firefighters or the service we represent should be taken for granted."

The Labour-controlled fire authority - one of seven such authorities in Britain - believes it is between a rock and a hard place. Peter Dowd, the authority's chairman, says it has lost around pounds 2m from its budget because of government financial stringency and declining population and building densities in the area.

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