Firefighters are expected today to reject proposals, accepted in March by their leaders, to settle their seven-month pay dispute. And they are likely to call for more national strikes.
An emergency meeting of activists from all over the country will have to decide whether to delay industrial action until the war in Iraq has ended. Andy Gilchrist, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), will urge delegates to postpone stoppages, pending fresh negotiations.
Mr Gilchrist and the union's national executive believe a peace formula tabled by Frank Burchill, an academic who chairs national negotiations, could form the basis of a settlement, despite unequivocal rejection by employers. The FBU leader and the executive had recommended a 16 per cent pay offer over three years – tabled before the Burchill plan was made – but members have overwhelmingly mandated delegates to reject the package.
The Burchill plan gives the union greater scope for negotiations over sweeping changes demanded by fire authorities. Employers say the blueprint will give the union power to block modernisation plans. Calls for an all-out indefinite strike are expected to be rejected by the national conference and, although there is considerable grassroots dissatisfaction with Mr Gilchrist, there will be no formal challenge to his leadership.
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is preparing legislation to set wages and conditions in the fire service if the FBU presses ahead with its dispute. A spokesman denied the Bill had stalled and insisted a new law could be enacted "within weeks" of Easter because it had support from all sides of Parliament.
A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster said: "Mr Prescott does not want to use the powers, he would prefer to see a negotiated settlement, but he will use the powers if he has to."
One senior figure close to the union said ministers could favour the proposed settlement drawn up by Professor Burchill, a specialist in industrial relations at Keele University, because it would not cost the Government "a penny extra". The Burchill document offers firefighters a protection for existing shift systems. It says changes should be introduced only after trying to reach agreement with the FBU rather than consensus. The latter word is seen as more vague and is used in the offer being rejected today.
Professor Burchill planned a short-term role for the present procedure in resolving disputes, and the document protects firefighters from "short-notice" changes and wholesale job cuts.
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