This is the summary of an interview Prol-Position made end of November 2002 with a firefighter from Belfast who is also a representative of the FBU (Fire Brigade Union).
The key issue of the current struggle is the wage increase the workers demand: 40 percent more (which is the same percentage the government allowed itself last year; a government rep - Robin Cook - said: "Good work should be paid well"). With the fire fighter's income you can hardly live without doing a second job on the side. The shift system (together with the overtime ban) allows that so far: the workers work two days (9 - 6), then two nights (6 - 9) and then have four days off.
The government on the other side wants no wage increase without "modernization": changes in the shift system, an end to the overtime ban, more tasks for the fire fighters… Obviously, that would mean more work under worse conditions for the workers.
The conflict started about two years ago when the government wanted to change the pension scheme and shift system. The last strike in the fire service was in 1977.
The first strike was called for two days earlier this month (November), the current one will go on for eight days. The plan is to go on strike for eight days, go back to work for two days, then another strike for eight days… (till the 24th of December).
The strike takes place in the whole country. Nearly 90 percent of the fire fighters voted for the strike and nearly all are taking part (also the call center-workers). There are only very few scabs within the fire service but the army does the work (with about 19,00 soldiers and their own - old - fire engines).
The fire brigade has 55,00 full time fire fighters, 3,00 of them in Northern Ireland, and thousands of part timers who work on call. The vast majority of them are organized in the FBU. Only 2 percent of the fire fighters are women. Airports and some bigger companies have their own fire services. The airport's fire brigades are also in struggle.
The union plays the central role in the struggle. The main place to meet and discuss are the picket lines. The fire fighters do take action in case there is an emergency call the army just cannot handle. In Belfast the union tries to organize a support-net with other organizations, struggling workers etc. They get a lot of (verbal) support from other workers and hope to be able to collect some money for a strike fund (in Britain workers get no strike pay). They are hoping for the kind of support the miners got during their strike 1984/85.
The soldiers cannot really do the full service because their equipment is too old and they don't have all the necessary skills. The government says that the army is not ready for the war against Iraq because so many soldiers have to do the fire service. Some other workers went on strike due to the danger of fire (London tube workers, teachers…). That's a way around the anti-strike-laws that prohibit so-called "secondary strikes" (i.e. in support of strikes of other workers).
Part of the media shows some support of the strike. The problems due to the low wages are too obvious and the fire fighters have a positive image. Some papers - like the biggest tabloid "Sun" - write against the strike.
The course of the struggle
It is not clear what will happen. So far there are no clashes at the picket lines. The workers are angry, some are confused. But they are determined to win this struggle (as the strike ballot showed; by the way: in Northern Ireland there are no problems between the "Catholics" and the "Protestants" in the fire service; the job is dangerous and you depend on the trust and support of your colleagues; there is no room for "racist" conflicts).
The employers are the local governments, councils… The central government is involved cause it needs to provide some of the funding for a new (wage) contract. The employers had accepted a 16 percent wage increase while the FBU wanted to participate in the "management"-measures (the deal was: 4 percent now, 12 percent more over the next 12 months, linked to management measures). But the Labour government did not accept the deal. It wants to keep the lid on public expenditure. In the case of the fire fighters that can only mean an attack on wages (85 percent of the fire brigades-budget is being spent on wages etc.). If the fire fighters win other workers in the public service (teachers, nurses…) will also demand high wage increases. They also are unhappy about their wages. Already many other workers are demanding more and some other struggles are going on. So the government needs to hold the fire fighters down. It could try to get a court injunction against the strike (by claiming that it is "disproportionate"). But so far the negotiations continue.
The strength of the strike is the determination of the workers and the public support. The fire fighters cannot be replaced by other workers and their work is vital (bin men, postal workers, even nurses of teachers are easier to replace).