What about the workers? If the firefighters are worth 40 per cent, who else has justified claims?

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Indy Politics

It must be autumn. This is the season of mellow fruitfulness and dire warnings of a winter of discontent brought on by industrial militancy.

It must be autumn. This is the season of mellow fruitfulness and dire warnings of a winter of discontent brought on by industrial militancy.

Six months ago there were forebodings about a summer of discontent. This time last year Shakespearean warnings were also sounded. Now concern centres on the firefighters' dispute and the 36 days of strikes intended to force a pay award of 40 per cent.

The scene is set for the most serious industrial challenge Labour has faced since it came to power in 1997. However, there are reasons for believing that comparisons with the first winter of discontent (apart from the Shakespearean one) are overdone.

During the industrial strife in 1979 – the first year to enjoy the Shakespearean epithet – about a quarter of the working population either went on strike or were laid off because of it.

The unrest began at Ford and the British Oxygen Company in protest at a 5 per cent limit on pay imposed by the government. After private sector unions left the wage curb in tatters, their public sector colleagues decided they wanted a piece of the action. Hence the winter of 1979 with the memorable images of rats scurrying around unemptied rubbish bins and bodies left unburied by striking gravediggers.

Pessimists believe that if the firefighters are granted 40 per cent there will be a tidal wave of industrial disruption among other public sector workers demanding the same.

But Alastair Hatchett, of the research organisation Incomes Data Services, is one of those who believe the prognosis is not as bleak as it appears. It is highly unlikely firefighters will receive anywhere near the 40 per cent increase that would put fully trained employees on £30,000 a year.

Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the Fire Brigades Union, has dropped strong hints that he would be prepared to accept considerably less. He repeats that his members are worth £30,000, but is careful not to say that they would refuse less.

It is known that the employers, the local authorities, were prepared to offer 16 per cent, but ministers vetoed the proposal. Mr Gilchrist indicated that such a figure would not be laughed out of court.

And yet the pessimists would point out that 16 per cent is still much higher than the 5.5 per cent other workers in the state sector have accepted. The 16 per cent, however, is now so much water under the bridge.

The best hope of settling the dispute now rests with an inquiry backed by the Government – and boycotted by the FBU – which might offer fire-fighters more "up front", but would seek radical changes in working practices for any figure approaching 16 per cent. Put simply, firefighters are a special case. The employers "interim" offer stands at 4 per cent, but there is a strong argument to be made for a substantial increase on the basis of changes to working methods already accepted. Arguably such progress has gone way beyond that experienced by other public sector workers.

Twenty-five years ago when the firefighters staged their first national strike techniques employed by firefighters were relatively basic. Now equipment, the treatment of dangerous chemicals, cutting gear and first-aid practices have advanced beyond recognition. All employees have experienced change, but most have not experienced it on the scale seen in the fire service.

Employers now want the right to take on employees who will specialise in community liaison without having trained as firefighters first; they want to switch firefighters from city fire stations to suburban ones to reflect the daily flow of people and they want the FBU to agree changes to military-style procedures. For agreeing to such a revolution, employers and ministers accept that there has to be financial recompense.

Other comparable public sector workers are in the middle of processes which are leading to new working methods for signed agreements. In the National Health Service, nurses and midwives are expected to receive a double-figure increase for agreeing to the so-called "Agenda For Change". In schools, teachers are due for productivity payments for agreeing new flexibilities, and extra money is being paid to police officers in return for agreement to new procedures.

The problem in the fire service has been that the automatic pay system agreed to end the first national strike in 1977-78 has proved something of a straitjacket. It tied firefighters to the upper quartile of male manual earnings, but it made the award of productivity payments more difficult.

There is little doubt that a double-figure increase for fire-fighters will raise the aspirations of other workers, but it is unlikely it will lead to similar payments elsewhere or wholesale industrial action. The "investment and reform" mantra from Downing Street will certainly not change. More likely is a spate of walkouts in the transport sector and elsewhere as workers raise fears over the safety implications of fire-fighters' strikes, the first of which begins at 9am next Tuesday and lasts 48 hours.

It is highly unlikely for instance, that London will have its tube system for those two days. It is possible that part of the national network will shut.

Tony Blair said in the summer that he could not and would not countenance a return to the union excesses of the 1970s. "My position is totally simple, and always has been," he told a Downing Street press conference in July. "As long as I'm Prime Minister there will be no return to the bad old days. It will never happen."

Although he is keen to avoid confrontation, and progress has been made in the first term on union recognition and a minimum wage, there is every indication that Mr Blair's words are not mere rhetoric.

Downing Street is fond of pointing out that the number of days lost due to strikes is lower for the first five years of new Labour than the last five years of John Major.

Mr Blair is famously uneasy with trade union leaders, preferring to leave most negotiations to those around him who have spent their lives immersed in the labour movement. Unfortunately, he has lost a number of such figures in the past year.

Ian McCartney, who did so much to reassure unions on employment legislation in the first term, is now preoccupied with his job as Pensions minister. Pat MacFadden, the former deputy chief of staff at Number 10, has left to work in the private sector.

John Mann, the Labour party union liaison officer, became MP for Bassetlaw and, in perhaps the biggest blow of all, Jon Cruddas, Downing Street's main union fixer, became MP for Dagenham.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is a former National Union of Seamen official and remains a powerful figure armed with years of experience in the language and ritual dances of disputes.

Nita Clarke, the new union supremo at Downing Street, has been blamed, unfairly her allies say, for the worsening relations with some unions.

Ms Clarke, a former girlfriend of the rock star David Bowie, was former head of press at Unison but at present lacks the clout that Mr Cruddas built up.

Her friends point out that the lengthy experience and insider knowledge of John Spellar, the Transport minister and former AEEU official, did not help him predict that, this year, Mr Blair would lose his biggest backer in the movement.

When Sir Ken Jackson was forced out of Amicus by the left-winger Derek Simpson, Downing Street finally realised that it would have to deal with a new generation of hardline union leaders. Mr Blair's key union ally remains John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC, who has proved invaluable in getting unions to modify their actions. But even Mr Monks will leave his post soon and a new rash of left-wing union leaders is expected to be elected next year.

Just as worrying for Mr Blair is the fact that he needs unions' hard cash to fund the Labour Party. Despite moves to back state funding of parties, he will be nervous of the round of political levy ballots next year.

The winter may not yet be discontented, but this is one problem that is not going to go away in any season.

Public servants - how the pay and conditions compare

Policeman

Mark Wakerworks in Marylebone, central London.

Age: 21. Pay: £22,000 basic plus £4,600 London allowances.

Hours: 38 a week.

"I live in Hertfordshire and find it pretty easy to live on my salary. I can go out when I want, but I can't imagine running a family on my wage. My friends think I earn a lot of money, but for the job I do people should be paid a lot more. If people saw what we have to do, day in, day out, they would expect us to be paid £50,000."

Paramedic

Simon Swallowworks in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear.

Age: 32. Pay: £21,369 a year. Hours: On average, 42 every week; 12-hour days with two half-hour breaks.

"I would say that my wife and I manage on our joint incomes but if she were to stop working, we could not afford to live in the area we do. I thoroughly enjoy [my job]. However, I look at my salary and think that I work long, hard and very stressful hours, and I do think that I could do with a little more money."

Teacher

Amanda Haehner teaches English in Croydon, south London.

Age: 41. Earns: £27,861 basic, plus £3,219 for management duties, plus £2,043 London allowance. Total pay: £33,123.

Hours: 45 hours in school, plus six at home, parents' evenings, etc.

"As a single person I can manage on my salary, but I do wonder how on earth people survive in London on these salaries when they have children.I definitely do not think that our salaries reflect the responsibilities that teachers have."

Armed services

Matthew Gormley, RAF chef, rank of senior aircraftsman.

Age: 27. Earns: £16,000 plus overtime, subsidised room and food. Hours: 45 per week.

"I am fairly money-wise and cope better than younger soldiers in barracks who can quickly go into debt. Everyone wants more money but essentially I'm happy with my wage. I'm better off than the chefs in civvy street and I don't want to move to a big city where most of the jobs are."

Nurse

Jonathan Clark works at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

Age: 22. Earns: £16,000 basic; allowances raise pay to £24,000. Hours: 37.5 hours a week, plus 7.5 hours overtime.

"I have been qualified for just over a year and I am due to get a £400 rise in December. The pay is okay, but the thing that worries me most is the lack of progression. If I stay in clinical practice I can go to £30,000 or £35,000, but such a small minority get to that level."

Fireman

Saleem Malik works in Middlesbrough. Age: 37. Earns: £21,500.

Hours per week: On average, a 42-hour week. Two eight-hour day shifts followed by two 16-hour night shifts.

"I am single but my salary is still a problem for me to live on, and more so for the average firefighter with a family. I was lucky enough to have bought my house before the boom in property prices. Despite a general feeling of satisfaction, I don't consider myself fairly paid, especially for the obvious danger element."

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