Union to decide on firefighter ballot as unofficial industrial action spreads

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The Independent Online

A ballot on nationwide industrial action will be considered today by firefighters leaders as unofficial protests over pay spread.

As bonfire night celebrations got under way last night, staff at around 35 out of the United Kingdom's 56 brigades were refusing to undertake non-emergency duties. Thousands of fire men and women were boycotting a range of activities, including training exercises and fire prevention work.

Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), will report back to his executive today after fresh talks with employers yesterday.

Among the options for the leadership of the union will be to call a vote on official action in protest at management's decision to pay a seven per cent pay increase in two stages - 3.5 per cent tomorrow and 3.5 per cent in the New Year. The rise was part of a deal which brought the bitter firefighters' dispute to an end in June.

At the heart of the argument is circular NJC/01/03 signed by both Mr Gilchrist and Charles Nolder, chief employers' negotiator.

The document states that as part of stage two of the agreement, pay would be increased by an "average" seven per cent from tomorrow.

However, it also says that the increase is subject to verification by the Audit Commission, a body funded by local authorities to provide accountancy services. It was agreed that the commission would produce a report on whether firefighters had delivered the changes expected of them in return for the extra cash.

Both the employers and the commission insisted yesterday that it was always understood that the study would be undertaken next January for completion next March and that the pay rise would be back-dated provided the objectives had been met. Employers say they have conceded an up-front payment of 3.5 per cent as a "gesture of goodwill".

The union, however, pointed to a much more recent declaration on 20 October, signed buy both sides, in which there was no mention that the deal would be "staged".

A spokesman for the FBU said the union had made more concessions than had been asked of them. "Management are being over-legalistic. The strings attached to the agreement have become trip wires. They are not honouring the intention and spirit of the deal."

Matt Wrack, London regional organiser of the FBU, said firefighters were extremely angry at the employers' decision to stage the increase. However, he said FBU members were also protesting over the decision to scrap long-service pay, introduce cuts in some pay rates and end other long-standing FBU policies.

Graham Noakes, a regional official of the union, said the industrial action had spread to all brigades in East Anglia.

"It is not 100 per cent at every station, but firefighters are involved in some way across the region. I think the firefighters are now becoming resolute." Crews at around half the fire stations in Cheshire were said to have joined the unofficial strike action.

Neil Day, secretary of the union's Norfolk branch said: "If something satisfactory isn't sorted out it may well be time to rip up this agreement and start again.

"We are starting to see what the employers' true agenda is - cuts not modernisation."

The FBU executive will have a number of options to consider, including whether to accept or reject the agreement, renegotiate some of the details or move towards a fresh ballot for industrial action.