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UK Firefighter dispute 2002/2003

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In late 2002, the UK firefighters union, the Fire Brigades Union[?] (FBU), voted to take strike action in an attempt to secure a better wage[?]. Their ideal is an increase of 39%, which will bring the average firefighter's wage to around 30,000. This was the first nationwide firefighters' strike in the UK since the 1970s. The FBU plans to march in London on December 7.

The strike comes as part of a wave of industrial action in Britain, which began with the council workers' strike in the July of the same year, and continues with, for example, 95% of the UK's postal workers voting for industrial action. [1] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/post/story/0,11489,839887,00)

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Strike periods The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The first period, a two day strike, began at 18:00 (6pm) on Wednesday 13th November and ended at 18:00 on Friday 15th November. Unless some reconciliation could be brokered, the following periods of strike were planned to follow it:

  • 09:00 Friday 22nd November to 09:00 Saturday 30th November
  • 09:00 Wednesday 4th December to 09:00 Thursday 12th December
  • 09:00 Monday 16th December to 09:00 Tuesday 24th December

The armed forces have been providing emergency cover during the strike, using the vintage Green Goddess engines as part of Operation Fresco[?]. As there are a limited number of military hydraulic cutting teams available, it is likely that emergency amputations may be necessary to free road accident victims from crashes.

Inevitably, as everybody involved admits, this cover won't really be sufficient, and the strike will put lives at risk. Each side places the responsibility entirely with the other; the FBU say that their employer's failure to meet their demands is the cause of the strike. Many fear that lives will be lost in fires because of a lack of a prompt response by emergency services.

Negotiations The first few weeks of the planned action were postponed while negotiation took place. The FBU rejected an offer that would amount to 11% over two years from a review body headed by Sir George Bain[?], and are unwilling to accept reforms to their working conditions.

On March 19th 2003 leaders of the FBU and negotiators for the local authority employers reached a provisional agreement based on a three year pay settlement and an understanding that modernisation measures would be subject to some measure of local negotiation. To the surprise of many observers, this was voted down by local area FBU representatives the following day.

On June 12th 2003 the dispute ended with the firefighters accepting a pay deal worth 16% over three years linked to changes to working conditions.

Public support Many, including the firefighters themselves, believe that the British public are largely behind the firefighters, and see the government as intransigent and prepared to squander billions on supporting US war efforts whilst underpaying brave public servants[?]. For example, the FBU branch secretary at Sale, Cheshire[?] fire station says that the strike has received a "tremendous amount of support from the public... [it] has been fantastic." [2] (http://uk.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=46764&group=webcast)

Many British trade unions, such as the RMT[?], have expressed solidarity, particularly at the rally on September 2.

Whilst public respect for firefighters has generally been high, some members of the public resent what they percieve to be an attempt by the firefighters to abuse their position for financial gain, and regard their willingness to put lives at risk as a form of extortion. This view is expressed by many of the right wing newspapers and tabloids, particularly The Sun and the Daily Mail.

The head of the Fire Brigades Union is Andy Gilchrist[?].

Criticisms of the firefighters' claims A central plank of the firefighters' claim is that they put their lives at risk. However, a study in the Lancet[?] found firefighting to be only the 23rd most dangerous occupation after common occupations such as refuse collectors, builders, lorry drivers, and farm workers. This study was based on official figures, although quite old ones, dating from 1979-1980 and 1982-83.

Critics also say that the claim that their wage is not fair is also damaged by the reported fact that advertised posts for firefighters can receive 40 applications, indicating by the laws of supply and demand that the pay is more than sufficient. However, in response to this last point, the FBU has said that only 1 in 25 of those applicants are suitable for the post.

Deaths

On Thursday November 14, 2002, Evan Davies[?], an 86-year-old man, died in a house fire. His sheltered housing was half a mile away from a striking fire station, with an automatic fire alarm tied into a national control centre. It took twenty minutes for a Green Goddess to reach him from their base five miles away. His death was probably unnecessary. However there is no way of knowing whether he would definitely have survived if the strike had not taken place.

Typically, 600-700 people die each year in fires in the UK.

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