London’s firefighters are gearing up to resist unilateral changes to their shift system by employers who are determined to impose the government’s cost-cutting “modernisation” agenda on the service. A staggering 98.5% of firefighters are opposed to the plans to compel them to work a system of 12-hour shifts and strike action is a distinct possibility if current negotiations break down. The conflict arises out of the unsatisfactory agreement that the then Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leaders reached to end the 2002-03 pay dispute. This was linked to proposals to alter working conditions in a way that would reduce the effectiveness of the service and undermine working conditions. A series of disputes throughout the country since then has tested the FBU’s resolve. But the major challenge is in London, where there are almost 5,800 firefighters.
London fire employers originally intended to replace the nine-hour day and 15-hour night shifts with the new 12-hour system in April 2006 but backed down in the face of a strong FBU reaction. Now the employers are on the warpath again and the FBU’s London region is preparing the membership for a struggle. A detailed submission in defence of the existing watch patterns of work has gone out to all members, as well as to brigade chiefs. FBU regional secretary Joe MacVeigh says: “If the brigade ignores the wishes of our members, we will have no alternative but to hold a ballot for industrial action, including strike action. We do this reluctantly, but we also do it in the knowledge that we simply cannot stand back and allow the brigade to emasculate our working conditions so flagrantly.” With travel-to-work times increasing because of affordable housing shortages, it is easy to see that a 12 -hour shift starting at 8am would result in a firefighter leaving their home at 6am hours and not returning until 10pm. A sizeable proportion of the workforce would receive less than seven hours rest between day duties, which would effect performance as fatigue sets in.
Undermining the existing watch system will have serious consequences for Londoners, who depend on crews to put their own lives on the line each day to rescue people from fires and crashes, to deal with floods and terror attacks and to educate the community about risk and dangers. Firefighters obviously depend on each other and the FBU states: “Teamwork is vital in emergency situations, where reliance on your colleagues is paramount to ensure that safety is not compromised. The current watch system is based on the principle of teamwork. Individual members within a watch will have unique personalities, experience and qualities that determine both their strengths and weaknesses. Collectively, these attributes are harnessed on a watch, whereby those strengths are capitalised upon and the weaknesses are improved upon, thus resulting in an effective team.” The abolition of the watch system would reduce firefighters to individuals, which is what the employers – who hate and fear the FBU’s collective strength – actually want.
If a dispute breaks out, it will once more bring the FBU into direct conflict with the New Labour government. As the submission points out: “The fire and rescue service is currently experiencing a period of dramatic change, brought about not only by changes in legislation but by over-zealous fire and rescue authorities which have as their central aim the cutting of costs and resources in the name of ‘modernisation’… All too often, modernisation is a euphemism for frontline cuts whilst opening up the service for private sector involvement.. without a proper examination of the long term consequences.”
Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor