Support your local firefighters!

03/02/2003

At the time of writing this I am fervently hoping that an end to the firefighters’ pay dispute has been found. It seems to me that an outline of a solution has been visible for a while now: the employers need to offer some more to sweeten the pill of modernisation; the Government needs to provide some more money for the employers (given they’ve already spent over £70 million in strike cover this should be possible); and the FBU needs to show a little more flexibility over working practices. This will require some compromises and a standing down from the entrenched positions that both sides now find themselves in. The alternative is that the dispute rumbles on, becoming more bitter. This would be bad news for you and me as citizens but it is worse news for the firefighters themselves. It is worth mentioning, by the way, that our fire service in Lancashire has already accepted much modernisation.

Not many people come out of this dispute with credit except, perhaps, our local firefighters themselves. The Government can hardly have been said to have handled things adroitly: threatening to impose a settlement looks heavy-handed and may not even work; despite having months of notice that a dispute was growing the Government appeared ill-prepared. And, until recently, it has been sending out conflicting messages about what kind of deal would be acceptable. The Fire Brigades Union leadership has not exactly covered itself with glory either: to demand a 40% pay rise at a time when inflation is running at 2% was naïve. Its defence of firefighters’ working practices has been weak. But far and away its worst moment was when FBU leader Andy Gilchrist said he wanted “to replace new Labour with real Labour”. Andy, this was a terrible mistake to make: your job is to get a good deal for your members, not to change the Government. If the question is who governs Britain, Blair or Gilchrist, the answer is unlikely to be Gilchrist.

So what of our local firefighters here in Hyndburn? Well, if your image of the FBU has been formed by what you’ve read in the national media (especially the terrible tabloids), forget it – this is not a bunch of militants seeking a scrap with the Government. What I have found when I have been on the picket lines is a group of people who have gone on strike with deep reluctance. After all, as many of them have pointed out to me, they’ve joined the fire service to dedicate their working lives to saving others. They feel they’ve been badly treated over many years, and they’re right. They feel that they’ve been pushed around by the Government and the employers, and they’ve got a point. They know they can’t have 40% with no strings attached, but then they aren’t expecting that. What they do want is a decent rise that shows how much society values the often dangerous work that they do, and I think they deserve that. They would like nothing better than to be able to return to work, but no-one should underestimate their resolve or morale to see this through. They are putting their case with good humour not bitterness and they deserve a better deal than they are getting. I visited their picket line last weekend and I’ll go back to offer my support as long as the dispute lasts. In common with our local firefighters I really hope that there aren’t any more strikes. But if there are, pip your horn when you go past or better still turn up to give a word of support. Support your local firefighters, you never know when you might need them!

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