100 not out and still fighting on all fronts

Ian Murray outlines the struggles the FBU is undertaking for its members and for the general public.

This is an historic year for the FBU – our centenary as a union of firefighters, for firefighters and run by firefighters across Britain. I am proud to be the union’s senior elected lay official in this year when we celebrate building this great union of ours. It’s an immense achievement to sustain our organisation, a union that has contributed so much to our industry and to the labour movement we belong to.

In many places across the globe, firefighters are prevented from forming unions or bound by vicious restrictions on the right to organise and take industrial action. Elsewhere firefighters are subsumed into general unions, or divided among different organisations. The FBU is deliberately an industrial union, organising all ranks and roles in our sector. The FBU is a political union, because it is essentially governments that employ our members and who make the key decisions about the resources and staff. The FBU is now fully re-engaged with the Labour Party and fighting for a Labour government, which we believe is the best way to improve our fire service and our members’ pay and conditions.

The Grenfell Tower public inquiry is currently hearing testimony from firefighters, just over a year on from the worst fire in living memory. The FBU agrees with survivors and residents that this fire was an atrocity – how could such a conflagration happen in the capital city in one of the wealthiest places on earth? If it had occurred anywhere else in Britain, then the death toll could have been even worse as other fire and rescue services (F&RSs) do not have the resources to tackle such a blaze.

The fact that hundreds more tower blocks in England still have dangerous cladding on their exterior is a disgrace that has to be resolved at Westminster. The FBU is aware that regulations in Scotland were tightened after the Garnock Court fire in 1999, effectively outlawing the flammable cladding that continued to be installed elsewhere. This is a good example of where devolution in Scotland can be used to benefit other parts of Britain.

In the public inquiry, the FBU wants justice for the victims and the community – our duty to them and the public we serve is to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again. We want politicians at the top who made the strategic decisions that led to the fire to be held to account – it was ministers who failed to regulate, failed to resource the fire service and failed to oversee the local authorities, the landlords and the contractors.

The FBU also want to ensure that firefighters are not scapegoated by industry profiteers and politicians wriggling to get themselves off the hook. The union is immensely proud of the work our members did that night for, as we have been hearing in phase one of the public inquiry, firefighters went way above the call of duty. From the operational firefighters who went into that building to rescue scores of residents, to the control staff who spoke for hours to those in distress, as well as the inspectors who investigate these matters – all acquitted themselves with distinction. The appreciation we received from the community strengthens our resolve to get justice in the public inquiry.

The FBU faces many battles on the industrial front. The Tories have handed over the running of some of our brigades to police and crime commissioners, who know nothing about the fire service. Chief fire officers all over Britain are attacking 24/7 cover to the public (especially night cover), which in turn means they want to impose ridiculous Victorian shift patterns on our members. They want to make our members ride small vans to emergencies, when only fully staffed and equipped fire engines are sufficient for many fires we attend.

Another significant victory for the union was our successful Judicial Review in the High Court that ruled that a duty system requiring firefighters to work 96-hour shifts as unlawful. The case centered on a duty system operated by South Yorkshire F&RS known as close proximity crewing (CPC), but the judgment could affect dozens of F&RSs that operate similar shift systems.

CPC and similar type duty systems are borne out of the reductions F&RSs have seen in the central government funding grants. They operate on a system whereby the number of firefighters based at a traditional fire station is cut in half and those remaining provide 96-hours continuous cover to ensure the communities receive the same twenty four hour cover.

For several years, the FBU has argued that these duty systems are not safe. Firefighters carry out work under dangerous conditions and often the incidents we attend are long and arduous, such as the response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the recent moorland fires and protracted flooding incidents that we now see more regularly.

The fight back continues with the union gaining some significant successes over recent months, notably in the West Midlands. Our members won a very important victory, following returning a massive result in a ballot for industrial action: 90% voting in favour of strike action on an 82% turn out. This was our first ballot conducted under the Trade Union Act 2016 and the undemocratic restrictions imposed on trade unions. So it was pivotal we smashed the thresholds laid down within it for ‘important public services’.

The ballot was over the disgraceful imposition of new contracts on new recruits, which permit the chief to make them work anywhere and on any hazard regardless of their training and other colleagues. This is unsafe for firefighters and unfair to the public: our communities do not want a two-tier workforce or their firefighters doing social care when they have real emergencies to tackle.

Following the ballot result, West Midlands F&RS has now agreed to withdraw the contracts. It is a disgrace that a Labour-led fire authority was backing the two-tier proposals, despite strong opposition from national and local Labour politicians. Firefighters never resolve to take industrial action lightly, but our members were driven to ballot after all of our reasonable requests to negotiate had been ignored.

After eight years of pay restraint imposed by the coalition and subsequent Tory governments, the union’s joint attempt with the national employers at gaining a much needed ‘above the pay cap’ rise for expanding the role of firefighters is now coming to a head. At the time of writing, our employers have offered to uplift the pay of firefighters by 2%. This is while national negotiations continue on the issue of broadening the role but that is dependent upon adequate and sustainable funding being sourced.

The union has sought to take these issues forward jointly with the employers, including various attempts to lobby government ministers for adequate resources for the F&RS, including to cover the need for increases in pay. While fire is a devolved matter, firefighters’ pay is still negotiated Britain-wide via the National Joint Council. Although the situation is complicated by the current political situation in Northern Ireland, we have made some progress in Scotland and in Wales but disappointingly discussions at Westminster have not progressed to the same degree and the Home Office appears to remain committed to supporting a programme of cuts to the F&RS and cuts to the living standards of our members working within it.

We are currently consulting with our members regarding the employers pay proposal as it fails to address what we see as the already expanded roles firefighters carry out. As part of that consultation, we will also be seeking the views of our members on the need to prepare for industrial action. This includes the need to prepare for strike action as well as developing plans for a withdrawal from all non-agreed or non-contractual work currently undertaken within the service.

So the FBU will go into overdrive during the next few months as we face battles on several fronts to defend our members and the F&RS we work for. One thing is clear for the FBU: firefighters will stand together and will stand up for the communities we serve.

Ian Murray is the President of the Fire Brigades Union. He joined the Humberside F&RS in 1994 and served at West Hull and Hull Central fire stations. In 2010, he was elected to the union’s executive council representing the Yorkshire and Humberside region and in addition served as the FBU vice-president from 2014. Ian also sits on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.