The prospect of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was meant to have been banished by the deal that ended the first national strike in 1977-78. This was supposed to have been the war to end all wars.
Much to the fury of the union's most militant activists, the FBU leadership agreed a formula to increase pay every year without the need for annual sabre-rattling, let alone industrial action. Terry Parry, the then general secretary of the union, named his greyhound "Upper Quartile" because the deal tied firefight- ers' wages to the top 25 per cent of male manual earnings.
Recently, however, the deal has failed to meet the aspirations of firefighters, who argue that their wages have been falling behind comparable employees, such as police officers. After five years' training a firefighter receives £21,531 a year, while a police officer with similar experience receives a minimum £23,037.
The FBU also points out that its members' jobs have changed out of recognition. There are more dangerous inflammable chemicals and more sophisticated ways of dealing with them; staff are trained to deal with terrorist attacks; the number of traffic accidents as a proportion of call-outs has soared and the techniques for extracting victims from crashed vehicles have developed dramatically. Firefighters must tackle prevention as well as cure.
Male manual earnings have slipped in the economic pecking order. Firefighters want to be valued at the same level as technicians, not blue-collar workers.
The problem faced by the local authorities which employ firefighters is how to address legitimate concerns over pay and the need for radical reform. Management believes the £30,000 claim by the union is unachievable in the short term, even with changes to working practices.
As part of their strategy, fire authorities want, for instance, greater emphasis on people rather than buildings when deploying crews. Management wants firefighters to be switched between stations to follow the daily flow of people from town centres to the suburbs. The FBU is accused of dragging its feet over such reforms, an allegation it denies.
It is thought that ministers are prepared to fund a higher pay offer provided there is agreement to radical changes in working practices. However, the union wants its members to be paid "up front" before agreeing to reforms. Employers characterise the 4 per cent pay offer as "interim", pending the outcome of a government-sponsored review. The union, however, is boycotting the review. Firefighters' leaders want to negotiate change directly with management, although some sources say the review is the best hope for the FBU.
It is clear that the union is confronting the Government rather than the local authorities, who were allegedly prepared to offer a 15 per cent increase before it was vetoed by the Government.
The review, under the chairmanship of Professor Sir George Bain, is not due to report until mid-December, some seven weeks after the first strike is due to begin. It is difficult to see how there can be any settlement until then. Both sides realise there is a high risk people will die as a consequence of the dispute.
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