August 18, 2010
Bosses threaten to sack London firefighters
By Tom Walker
Of the Socialist Worker
Firefighters in London are set to ballot for industrial action over management’s threat to sack them all.
London fire commissioner Rob Dobson sent a letter to the workers’ FBU union on Wednesday of last week to begin a 90-day “consultation period” on the plans.
It means that London’s 4,000 firefighters face mass dismissal as part of a scheme to tear up contracts and impose new shifts.
The proposal is to take three hours from night shifts and move them to the daytime shifts.
But the union says this will leave London without enough fire cover at night—and create childcare chaos for firefighters.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said the threat is the kind of thing workers “would expect from Victorian mill owners”.
“We will fight this disgraceful attack every step of the way,” he added.
Firefighters are set to ballot for industrial action short of a strike in the first instance.
And there is a growing mood for full strike action if bosses don’t back down. The union is now holding mass meetings around London.
Both sides have been building up to this battle for months—even years.
The Tory-controlled fire authority, run by notorious Barnet Tory councillor Brian Coleman, is spoiling for a fight with the union. It is using the economic crisis as an excuse.
But the bosses are clearly nervous.
They waited an extra two weeks before issuing the formal sacking threats after the union made clear its plan to ballot.
Up to 500 firefighters held a noisy protest outside a fire authority meeting in June.
The meeting discussed the plans to attack firefighters while also approving a hefty pay rise for Coleman.
Some 98 percent of London FBU members have already voted against the shift plans in a consultative ballot earlier this year.
And London firefighters took action short of a strike last year over conditions of service—and won.
In the run up to that dispute it was revealed that London fire bosses signed a £9 million five-year deal with private firm AssetCo to provide strikebreaking “cover” if workers walk out.
These rent-a-scabs would be put to work with just a few weeks’ training—nothing compared to the years of training and experience that real firefighters have.
FBU regional official Paul Embery called the privateers a “ragbag collection of blacklegs”.
Meanwhile, documents leaked in March prove that the shift plans mean cuts to night time fire cover.
They show the changes would give “a capability to withdraw personnel from night shift” and “the removal of ten appliances [fire engines]”.
The scene is set for a huge battle over this most vital of public services.
London is the largest and highest-profile fire brigade in the country.
It could be a national focus for the fightback against Tory cuts. If London strikes, the FBU should recall its annual conference—and ballot for national strike action in its support.