“Reckless and irresponsible”: Coleman and Dobson threaten to leave London without a fire service

The accusation has been thrown at the FBU by the London Fire Service and much of the media that it is “reckless and irresponsible” for threatening to leave London without fire cover for 47 hours, including over bonfire night. What these critics miss is that the FBU is involved in a fight for its survival and for the service its members provide. This is a group of workers who sometimes have to risk their own lives to save those of others. They are proud of the service they provide. They do not take strike action lightly. But they all face the sack on November 26th.

The real source of irresponsibility lies with Brian Coleman, Chair of LEPFA and commissioner Ron Dobson, who have set themselves the goal of breaking the power of the FBU, imposing a management dictatorship over the union and its members. For what Coleman is proposing is not to take away the fire service for 47 hours, but to take away the fire service indefinitely by sacking 5,500 firefighters. On August 11th the Fire Authority issued all their firefighters a “Proposed termination of contracts of employment – Notice of commencement of consultation under s.188 Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.” The management are proposing to dismiss 5,500 people on November 26th. The ultimatum is to sign new contracts or be sacked.

The shifts which the staff work are well established and family arrangements are based on them. With an increased number of female staff, the shifts are also ‘family friendly’. So it is hardly any wonder that FBU referendum produced a 96% vote in favour of maintaining these shifts. The motivation for the management in changing to a 12 hour shift system is, of course, to save money, even if this means a worsening of the service.

In any event, Coleman, determined that to overcome the resistance of the staff, he would issue them with notices of redundancy, with a view to taking back those prepared to sign up to the new contracts with 12 hour shifts. Hence the industrial action, and the demand of the FBU that the threat of mass sackings is withdrawn.

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack wrote to LEPFA calling on it to withdraw the threat of mass sackings. In the absence of such a commitment strikes were inevitable.

Coleman is not interested in any sort of compromise. He wants to break the power of the FBU once and for all so that a system of management by dictat can be imposed. There can be no doubt of this since Coleman’s public statements make it plain.

He declared himself to be “quite relaxed” about sacking firefighters if they did not accept changes to contracts. Speaking to LBC 97.3 radio, he said he did not wish to retain the services of any firefighter who refused to sign a new contract. Pressed on whether this equated to a threat of the sack, Coleman responded: “It’s as good as. And I’m quite relaxed about that.”

Coleman said, “If it means ‘doing a Ronald Reagan’… I’ve got 948 firefighters who voted not to go on strike, together with the non-union members and the officers, I reckon 2,000 will sign their new contract.” 1

To say this is a cavalier attitude would be an understatement. Even in the event that he could get 2,000 to sign the new contracts it would still leave the Fire Service about 3,500 short of firefighters!

Make no mistake. This dispute is a pivotal one. It will not only determine the future of the London Fire Service, and the lives of their staff. In the context of the government’s austerity drive many employers will be looking at the outcome of the dispute as a potential ‘model’ for them to use. This is no exaggeration for a number of local authorities have already picked up on the strategy of the LEPFA management and issued all of their staff with s.188 notices with a view to forcing them to sign up to new contracts or face the sack. For instance Birmingham Council issued such notices for their 26,000 non-school staff. The latest of them to do likewise was Labour controlled Rhondda Cynon Taff Council (see http://solidaritymagazine.org/2010/10/944/ ). This is based on the perception that in order to impose unprecedented cuts (28% of local authority budgets in just four years) they need to break the power of trades unions, so that the cuts can be pushed through with no resistance.

So far as the Fire Service is concerned it is facing a 13% cut in funding over 4 years. When the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review was being announced, the Department of Communities and Local Government published a bulletin advising English Fire and Rescue Authorities of possible areas where savings might be made. These were:

Flexible staffing arrangements.
• Improved sickness management.
• Pay restraint and recruitment freezes.
• Shared services/back office functions.
• Improved procurement.
• Sharing Chief Officers and other senior staff.
• Voluntary amalgamations between Fire and Rescue Authorities.

If the cuts are not as deep as in other departments, they will nevertheless have a big impact on a service which helps to save lives and the destruction of property. This is the context in which the FBU strikes are taking place.

If management does not back down by November 26th then the key question will be whether they can split the union and see some of the members signing the contracts. Obviously the numbers that might sign up would determine whether or not LEPFA could operate some semblance of a fire service. Even so London would be deprived of a fire service sufficient to cover such a large city.

It is the management, led by Coleman, who are acting in the most reckless fashion, driven by their determination to destroy the FBU as an obstacle to management plans. Why? To impose their agenda of cutting costs and cutting the service. This was supported by a leaked internal management document, given to the FBU, which showed that they wanted to use the new shift system as a means of cutting night cover.

The recklessness of Coleman is also reflected in the strike breaking operation he has used:

  1. On a normal day, London is served by 169 fire engines. On the first strike day on 23rd October, there were 27 – that’s less than one per London borough;
  2. There are 113 fire stations in London. Only 27 were operational during the strike, meaning far longer average response times to incidents;
  3. There are 5,600 firefighters in London, trained for 3 months and serving a 2-year probation before fully making the grade. On the strike day, there were 130 poorly trained people employed by Assetco (the private company from which the Brigade leases its fire engines);
  4. The strike-breakers from Assetco have been trained for about one week and are not capable of dealing with emergencies affecting lifts, gas fires, petrol fires or flooding. They have also had no training in the use of cutting equipment used by the Fire Brigade and so are not equipped to deal with terrorist attacks, train crashes or similar disasters.

For all these reasons the FBU deserves the support not only of other trades unionists, but of everybody who understands that a crucial public service is under threat. As Matt Wrack has said in a circular to his members:

Fewer Firefighters will mean a poorer service to the public and increased risk to our communities as well as to Firefighters.”

The London Regional FBU Secretary hit the nail on the head when he said that if the management get away with these bully-boy tactics they will use them time and time again. “We must not allow that precedent to be set.” It is, however, a precedent which will be used against all trades unionists, not just FBU members. So a victory for the FBU is crucial.

Martin Wicks

Editor, SOLIDARITY Trade Union Magazine

Notes:

Messages of support should be sent to joe.macveigh@fbu.org.uk

See a video of London Firefighters explaining their case here

Listen here to two radio broadcasts following which followed the breakdown of talks on Sunday:

FBU officer Paul Embery on LBC 97.3: http://lbc.audioagain.com/player_popup.php?channel_id=108&user_id=50246&sec_id=0cddeb908c49b579447c5f11a44780d2e3ad41a1&guid=2010-10/31/d23cd23239ddd4d57a5fee34bd97a12f

Matt Wrack (and Brian Coleman) take part in a rather feisty phone-in on Radio 5 Live: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00vkkx3/Stephen_Nolan_31_10_2010

Scroll to 68 minutes for the Paul Embery interview. The Matt Wrack phone-in commences at the beginning of the programme.

1‘Doing a Ronald Reagan’ is a reference to the occasion when the US President sacked 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 after they went on strike for decent working conditions. As federal employees they had no right to strike. Hundreds of them were gaoled, and pictures of handcuffed staff were on the front pages of the mass media. Strikers were banned from the profession for life, and the union decertified.