First blood to the Coalition
Firefighters back down on strike but 'autumn of discontent' continues
Ministers are prepared to up the stakes in their disputes with striking public-sector workers, after firefighters dramatically backed off from today's Bonfire Night walkout.
Talks between the Fire Brigades Union and employers failed to resolve their disagreement over new working hours. Despite this, union leaders ordered thousands of firefighters not to walk out over Guy Fawkes and Diwali celebrations, for fear that the Government would accuse them of putting lives at risk. The union has agreed to arbitration.
Behind the scenes ministers were actively involved in pressurising the union to back down, The Independent understands. The London Mayor Boris Johnson telephoned the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and told him to ensure that officers were ready to intervene to protect strike-breaking private sector contractors brought in to provide firefighting cover. Striking firefighters were warned, in an attempt to weaken their resolve, that they faced losing their "gold-plated" final salary pensions if they keep on with the dispute.
While ministers and officials are keen to stress they are not looking to pick "a Thatcherite-style fight" with public-sector unions, they are determined not to concede ground in the face of swelling industrial unrest and are quietly delighted by the FBU's decision.
Among the current and upcoming disputes planned are:
* Thousands of BBC journalists will stage a two-day walkout today over plans to cut pension entitlements. All the BBC's main TV and radio news programmes, including Today, Breakfast and Newsnight, will be hit by the strike with presenters including Martha Kearney, Fiona Bruce and Nicky Campbell expected to walk out.
* Senior officials from teaching unions will meet today to discuss a walkout of school support staff.
* Tube workers are planning to up the ante in their dispute with London Underground. A further 24-hour strike is planned for 28 November and strikes could be extended to 48 hours in the new year.
In the background, ministers are aware that there will be further strikes across councils and the public sector, as the squeeze from the Comprehensive Spending Review is felt. Earlier this week Barnsley Council told the GMB Union that 1,270 jobs are now under threat across the council. Warwickshire County Council also announced that it was cutting the jobs of around 1,855 direct employees.
As a result, ministers are increasingly prepared to use tactics – including legal challenges – last seen in the 1980s. In the case of the firefighters, a Whitehall source told The Independent that civil servants had been asked to provide legal advice on whether firefighters would lose the right to their existing pensions if they went ahead with the strike.
Their guidance was that a strike would constitute a "break in service" and the LFB would be entitled to put them on to new contracts which were brought in for firefighters joining the brigade from 2006.
This would mean firefighters would have to work an extra five years before they got their pension and would not receive the same generous benefits.
"Not many people get two-thirds of their salary as a pension," the source said. "This is something those people going out on strike need to think about. We are not looking for an abstract fight with the unions for ideological reasons, but if you look at some of their rhetoric it would appear that we're up against people who are doing that with us. The firefighters and the Tube workers are resisting very modest changes and are not being reasonable. We will stand by the employers."
But union officials saw the situation very differently.
Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, said: "The UK already has some of the most draconian strike laws in Europe. Workers have to jump through hoops before they can even consider going on strike. For trade unions and members, strikes are the last resort."
A spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union warned that the biggest potential unrest would come next year after Lord Hutton's report on public-sector pensions is published.
He said: "That is the most pressing issue which concerns our members." But he added they were only prepared to strike as a very last resort.
"We are being represented by the Government as a one-trick pony who strike at the first opportunity. But that is totally untrue. In all cases, strike action is our very last resort."
Last night the Fire minister Bob Neill said: "I am glad that sense has prevailed. We have said all along that striking on Bonfire Night was inappropriate. I now urge the FBU to go back to the negotiating table and resolve this dispute through reasoned debate."
But Joe MacVeigh, regional secretary of the FBU, claimed they had called off the action because they did not believe the private contractors could "keep London safe".
"This decision came from our members who saw what happened the last time. We have a responsibility to look after the public."
Who's striking when
London firefighters had been due to begin a strike today, walking out on Bonfire Night, their busiest time of the year. There is some confusion as to what their current plans are. They took industrial action earlier this week, claiming their members were issued with "sacking orders" from management.
Senior officials at Unison will hold meetings today to discuss going on strike in protest at the abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body, responsible for negotiating pay and conditions for the school workers.
Millions of London commuters had their journeys disrupted by strike action this week. They face more service cancellations with another walk-out scheduled for 28 November as workers fight job losses.
Workers protesting against changing shift patterns walked out last month, causing disruption for travellers at British ports and airports.
Members of the National Union of Journalists are to begin a 48-hour strike today after rejecting proposed reforms to the BBC's pension scheme. Flagship news programmes including Today and Newsnight are expected to be hit.
Bin men and home helpers are expected to be among council workers to strike over redundancies amid a spending squeeze by local government. Kirklees, Edinburgh and Norwich workers have signalled support for strike action.
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