Firefighters to ballot on summer of strikes: Union leaders warn Clarke against confrontation over pay. Barrie Clement reports

A SUMMER of 24-hour strikes was in prospect yesterday after firefighters' delegates voted unanimously to challenge the Government on pay.

The annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union decided to recommend industrial action in a ballot in protest at the withdrawal of firefighters' automatic wage formula.

While union leaders would only say that the vote would be held at the 'most disadvantageous time to the Government', indications were that the FBU would hold the ballot in July and take action immediately after what is expected to be a decisive 'yes' vote. Stoppages by FBU members would present ministers with the most significant industrial challenge since the ambulance staff took action three years ago.

The firefighters are keen to exploit the present unpopularity of the Government and Ken Cameron, FBU leader, indicated that there would be strikes before the autumn, when it will be known precisely how much the wages mechanism would deliver.

Much to the surprise of left-wingers, even delegates from the most moderate brigades in southern England voted at yesterday's conference in Bridlington, Humberside, to urge members to come out.

The first national strike in 1977-78, which secured the formula, came after a 3-1 vote at that year's FBU annual conference, with a vocal minority in opposition.

In a fighting speech, Mr Cameron told delegates: 'The last thing we want to see is our members withdrawing their labour and putting the public at risk. But we would warn the Government that if you take us on, you take us on at your peril.'

The firefighters' leader called for a meeting with the Prime Minister and fresh talks with employers' representatives who have refused to guarantee the formula.

He also announced a march of uniformed members of 'lifeline' services in London on 26 May led by the FBU. Firefighters will be joined by nurses, ambulance personnel and coastguards in a mass protest over cuts in services.

Mr Cameron said the strike vote was not about picking a fight with Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary. 'It is about a decent living wage for people who do a dirty and dangerous job.'

Although all public sector workers are covered by a 1.5 per cent limit on pay increases this year, the FBU argues that firefighters are not seeking to become a special case.

'It is simply a question of asking the Government and employers to honour an agreement which has kept the industrial peace for 15 years,' Mr Cameron said.

If the formula linking pay to the upper quartile of male manual earnings produced a figure lower than 1.5 per cent, then 'so be it', he said. Mr Cameron however believes the figure would be nearer 4 to 5 per cent.

The conference also voted unanimously to hold a strike ballot if any firefighter was made redundant. So far local authorities have cut back on numbers through natural wastage.

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