From the good times to the bad times – and with a lot of callouts in between

Chris McGlone reflects on his working life as a firefighter and the changes he has witnessed.

Certain events and times in your life demand you take stock and reflect. 2018 is just such a time. It marks the centenary of our great organisation, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). It also represents a landmark in my own personal and professional life as a firefighter – the completion of my thirty years of operational service. It should have signalled the end of my firefighting career. However, there is life after death and I fully intend to see out my term as Executive Council Member for Scotland (which ends in mid-2019).

Rewind to 1988. The 1977 national strike is becoming a distant memory, recalled only by the ‘old hands’ with a mixture of pride and bitterness, a badge to be worn as a scar from a childhood scrap. Christ was it sore at the time but the passing years have since healed the wound and softened the memory.

As a recruit firefighter, talk around the mess table was never far from the ‘good old bad old days’. I was only in the job because of the actions of my older comrades – or so I was told – who had exercised their right to withdraw their labour and for the benefit of not just them but the generation of firefighters who would follow.

The consequences of the strike were not only the blurred images on reels of black and white footage. They were tangible and real for a younger generation, only just making their way in the job. The truth was the ‘old hands’ were spot on.

The sacrifices they made and industrial action they took under the FBU banner were, indeed, why cities like Glasgow required yet more firefighters. I wasn’t quite press-ganged as I wandered past Cheapside Street, the old training centre at that time. However, the recruitment drives were frequent enough to tempt myself as a young 23 year old with no real idea of where his life was heading.

Where I did head was ‘White watch’ at the Govan fire station. A stone’s throw from where I was born and one of the new, state of the art stations which was built, like many, to replace the old Victorian tenement-cum-firehouse that typified the Glasgow Fire Brigade of old.

Change was in the air, modernisation had arrived and money was increasingly available to invest in the new Fire and Rescue Services of a new age. However, cork helmets, plastic leggings and gardening gloves were de rigueur. Health and safety and the ‘near-miss’ were terms we still associated with a night out in town. Clearly, there was still some way to go.

Things were looking up, however, and the recruits I joined with were now receiving annual pay rises that the present generation can only dream of. The salary of a firefighter was on the move. The agreed pay formula, secured in the aftermath of the 1977 national strike, was doing its job and gradually bringing salaries into line with comparable public sector workers and other industries. In addition, appliances and equipment were increasing and improving apace and the job role of the modern firefighter was changing and adapting to the world around us. We moaned like we always had but the job was great!

Fast forward to 2018. The FBU is celebrating its centenary – a fantastic achievement but against a backdrop of the worst fiscal and economic squeeze in living memory. It has been ten long years since Lehman Brothers infamously imploded in the financial world of irrational exuberance – or were taken out in a collective act of revenge. Who needs friends when you’ve got capitalism?

The resulting fallout spawned, among other things, the brutal ideology of austerity and triggered the worst attack on the living standards of the working classes since the Great Depression of the 1930s. For decades, profits had been privatised. The catastrophic losses were now socialised and foisted on the working class.

Tax payer funded bailouts but with money we didn’t have so we burdened our children with the reparation for our mistakes. Wielding the tool of ‘quantitative easing’ (counterfeiting to you and I) to deliver the final act of betrayal. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest social crimes of the past century. The reality for firefighters and the FBU has been a decade of savage cuts and year-on-year real time pay erosion, accompanied by attacks on our conditions of service and the reversal of many of the genuine gains and improvements secured by organisations like the FBU, National Joint Council and the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. Collectively and with the FBU ever present, we improved the pay, terms and conditions of our members and the safety of workers and the public.

In Scotland, the publication of the Christie Commission report in 2011, which looked at the future delivery of public services, sounded the alarm for the fire service: innovate, collaborate and transform or wither on the vine. The result was the merging of the 8 Scottish brigades into a single entity in 2013.

New technology, innovation and proposed changes in response models are trumpeted as the saviour of the service. Delivered on a tight budget, by a workforce reduced in numbers and who are already overworked, demotivated and demoralised … The prospects for success, if based upon experience to date, are not good.

The deregulation of our profession, and the associated industries and the cuts to F&RS, have dealt a blow to the FBU and our members. However, we have not hung around for 100 years to take flight at the first sign of a fight. We will continue to protect our profession, even if others won’t. Things will improve and will do so with the help of our sisters and brothers from the wider union movement. After all, and to quote a favourite saying, ‘nowhere worth going is easy to get to’.

Chris McGlone is the Executive Council Member for Region 1 (Scotland)