Britain's 53,000 firefighters are to vote on whether to accept a staged 7 per cent increase in wages or move to a ballot on national strikes.
It is understood the Fire Brigade Union's executive decided on the consultation process to thwart more militant union members who wanted an immediate vote on stoppages.
Around two thirds of fire brigades were hit by unofficial action recently, after local authorities said that firefighters would be paid 3.5 per cent from 7 November, but would have to wait until the New Year for the remaining 3.5 per cent which would be backdated.
Left-wing activists had been pressing for an emergency national conference to discuss the actions of management. But moderates in the union point out that such gatherings are often dominated by the hard left. The result of the consultative vote - which will be held by post to minimise the influence of activists at fire station meetings - should be known within the next three weeks.
A union spokesman said: "We know that firefighters are unhappy. Some fire authorities have been trying to distance themselves from the decision to phase in the increase. We are also deeply unhappy, but we believe that people are capable of making up their own minds about whether a rise of 7 per cent in two stages is acceptable."
Moderates think that members will accept the deal. One official said: "Firefighters are not daft. They can see that other public sector employees are getting less. Teachers have received a 5.2 per cent offer phased over two years."
Left-wingers assert that the employers have reneged on an agreement to pay the increase in full from 7 November. Local authorities said the full 7 per cent could not be paid until the Audit Commission verified that firefighters had co-operated with agreed changes.