Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, told leaders of the Fire Brigades Union that the Government would make no exceptions to its 1.5 per cent public sector wages limit.
Amid a technically illegal demonstration by 1,000 of his members near Parliament, Ken Cameron, leader of the union, said his executive would now be recommending a ballot on strike action to the annual conference in May. The threat is potentially the most serious since John Major became Prime Minister.
Leaders of the FBU are seeking a 'free hand' to set the date of the vote, which might be timed to coincide with action by other public sector workers protesting against the Government's pay policy. Firefighters' wages are tied to the top 25 per cent of male manual earnings and the formula was the subject of ministerial unease even before the 1.5 per cent limit was imposed in the Autumn Statement.
It is understood that the union's campaign of action could start with a series of 24-hour strikes which might provoke a 'lock-out' by employers.
As it stands, the fire brigades' formula would deliver an increase of about 3 per cent from November, twice the Government's limit. A similar pay mechanism enjoyed by the police is expected to be abolished by the Sheehy inquiry, which is due to report in the summer.
The FBU leader said that firefighters were forced to claim rent rebates and free school meals for their children before an all-out strike in 1977 secured the pay formula. 'My members are saying that they are not prepared to do a dangerous and dirty job to return to a lowly level in the pay league and we believe the public will support them,' he said.
Mr Clarke said later that no decision had been taken to do away with the pay formula. 'However, I cannot agree that firefighters should be an exception to the Government's policy that in the current pay round the rises of all public sector employees should not exceed 1.5 per cent.' The amount of any pay rise this year was a matter for local authorities, he said.
Industrial action is threatened on other fronts. The result of a strike ballot over job losses among 68,000 British Rail workers is due, and more than half of London's buses were off the road yesterday in a second 24-hour strike over cuts in pay and longer working hours.
Building industry employers yesterday refused their 600,000 workers any pay rise this year. The construction union Ucatt called for 'realistic negotations'.