Firefighters to make 'last concession' with strike delay

Barrie Clement,Labour Editor
Monday 04 November 2002 01:00

Firefighters' leaders are poised to make what they say is a final concession to the Government by delaying a strike due to start on Wednesday.

An emergency meeting of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive today is expected to decide how much the planned eight-day stoppage will be altered. Executive councillors could opt for a strike of shorter duration beginning next week, which would allow time for fresh pay talks with fire authorities but also keep up the pressure on employers. It is understood that Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary of the union, will warn ministers and employers that there will be no more "goodwill gestures". One executive councillor said that there was "no way" that the FBU would agree to another postponement.

He added that some members of the executive would oppose the move to shorten the eight-day stoppage due to start this week.

A senior source at the union said employers had indicated that they would not be able to improve on the existing 4 per cent offer until 12 or 13 November. An FBU executive councillor thought fire authorities needed the time to negotiate with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

The union has already cancelled two 48-hour walkouts, and Wednesday's strike was scheduled to be the first of four eight-day stoppages ending on 24 December.

During talks last week FBU sources said that "good progress" had been made on the union's claim for a new automatic wage formula and pay parity between part-time firefighters and their full-time colleagues. However, less progress had been made on the union's demand that 1,800 emergency control room staff should be paid the same as firefighters.

Employers have also so far failed to address the claim for an immediate 40 per cent pay increase, which would raise firefighters' basic wages from £21,500 to £30,000 a year.

Executive councillors believe Mr Brown will insist on changes to working practices before releasing any more money. The union expects there will be "some give and take", but will oppose any attempt at imposing radical change.

The FBU has refused to co-operate with a government-backed review of pay and working practices under the chairmanship of Sir George Bain, which is not due to report until mid-December. An FBU official said that after a weekend of consultations with fire-fighters they were clearly running out of patience.

"There is a certain amount of frustration around the country," he said.

"A number of weeks were wasted between 2 September when talks ended and last week when they resumed.

"Although progress has been made on some issues such as a new pay formula and improved pay for retained fire-fighters and control-room staff, the employers have still not got around to the big issue."

An executive councillor said Mr Gilchrist had shown considerable bravery in arguing for the first set of strikes to be postponed at a time when no new offer had been made.

Some activists have continued to press for immediate industrial action to try to raise the stakes and force a settlement of the dispute. Employers have urged the union to suspend industrial action and believe that substantial progress has been made. They remain cautiously optimistic that an agreement can be reached.

Green Goddess fire engines crewed by military personnel remain on stand-by, but ministers have acknowledged their inferiority to the service provided by FBU members. The Government is also keen to avoid the sight of service personnel driving the ageing vehicles on emergency calls.

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