Firefighters: A drawn out defeat

What lessons can be drawn from the failure of the Fire Brigades Union's 30k pay struggle? Ian Foulkes, brigade chair of Merseyside FBU and an active member of the Socialist Alliance, looks back at the dispute

Not even the general secretary was able to sell the deal as a victory. After months on its sick bed the firefighters’ dispute finally faded away with little more than a whimper. After three weeks of spin worthy of New Labour, the Fire Brigades Union executive finally managed to get a ‘yes’ vote to accept a deal that sells jobs for a small wage rise and gives away conditions of service that have been successfully defended throughout the Thatcher era.

How did it come to this?

In 1977 the first national strike in the fire service achieved a pay formula which tied firefighters’ wages to those of the upper quartile of manual workers. This formula delivered decent wage rises for a time but as the privatisation programme of Thatcher and her successors and the trend towards globalisation drove down wages and closed factories, the formula began to deliver less and less and at times had trouble keeping up with inflation.

Eventually it became clear that firefighters and emergency control staff were falling behind other sectors in terms of comparative wages. At the same time the increasing technical complexity of the job and the housing problems faced in the south east led to a rising tide of pressure.

The calls to address the problems of the 1978 pay formula were resisted for a number of years by the old guard of Ken Cameron and Ronnie Scott, who were protective of what they had fought to win for many years, and perhaps too they were wary of uncorking the bottle - releasing the genie of the employers’ so-called ‘modernisation’ agenda.

Not so Andy Gilchrist, who was not in the fire service at the time of the last national strike and therefore, one could argue, less attached to the old formula. The executive council in a statement to conference set in motion the train of events that would lead to the pay dispute. In that statement it was made clear that any change to the formula would have to be hard fought for and that it was to be expected that the employers would want some sort of quid pro quo in the form of lifting the longstanding overtime ban and changes to other conditions of service.

The campaign

At conference in May 2002 the executive council proposed an emergency resolution. The resolution called for pay parity for retained firefighters and emergency fire control staff, a new pay formula and a basic wage of £30,000. This motion was carried unanimously after a euphoric almost New Labour rally-style debate.

The £30,000 wage was backed up by a great deal of research, including a costing document which demonstrated that it could be paid for with changes to the fire service that would reduce the cost of losses due to fire.

The publicity campaign began at that conference with the unveiling of the ‘Y … Because we’re worth it’ slogan. Once again the publicity campaign went into overdrive with a plethora of stickers, caps, flags and whistles, produced and distributed throughout the country. As the leadership went in to negotiate the demands of the pay claim, fire stations throughout the country were adorned with campaign material.

With the predictable rejection of the pay claim by the employers, the ballot process was started and a series of mass meetings and rallies were held throughout the country in a campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. These meetings were addressed by a leadership who were received with show of support bordering on adulation that must have convinced them that the members were up for it. At this stage the impression was given that it was a done deal and all that was required to win was to get a massive ‘yes’ vote.

Were the members prepared for the hardship of strike?

It has to be asked, did some members vote ‘yes’ without being prepared back this up with the action needed to win the dispute? The result of an 87% ‘yes’ vote suggests that the campaign was an overwhelming success. Many believed that the whole £30,000 was achievable without having to put up much of a fight.

It may be argued that the campaign was too successful. The leadership were convinced that they had the full backing of a membership that had given them very few reasons to believe otherwise (who is going to argue, when promised a 40% pay rise?). They perhaps believed their own excellent publicity. They certainly had the confidence that a strike could be won.

The members definitely believed the hype and their enthusiasm for the campaign and the promise of a massive pay hike caused a positive feedback loop of mutual admiration which precluded any thought about what would happen in the event that the wage claim was met with opposition. There were very few voices calling for caution.

The strike

In retrospect a strike was inevitable. Nobody in their right mind would expect the government to cave in to such a big pay claim without a bit of a fight. The campaign was so successful that it blinded the union to the need to prepare an action plan in the event of strike action. The drive to deliver the ‘yes’ vote almost excluded planning for what would need to be done to win the dispute. There was so much emphasis on getting the vote and then the members out that it was almost forgotten that eventually there would have to be a settlement.

The signs that all was not going to be well were on the wall from the very beginning. Three planned strike dates were pulled by the executive council without reference to the members. We were persuaded that a deal was there for the taking and that we had to appear to be reasonable and join in constructive negotiation. This proved futile, since, although progress was made on principles of pay equality and a new pay formula, the pay offer remained derisory and a new spectre had raised its head. This was in the form of an ‘independent review of the fire service’, to be conducted by professor Sir George Bain (see below).

In rejecting this offer the only resort was now to take strike action. A series of strikes had been announced in October ranging from 48 hours to eight days. The strategy of longer duration strikes had been informed by the experience in Merseyside, Essex and Derbyshire, where the longer periods of strikes had reduced the length of the dispute. Merseyside’s first dispute dragged on for nine months, whereas the second dispute lasted just 12 days.

The first two strike periods went well with a solid response from the membership. There were no FBU members working and indeed in some areas a number of members were recruited to the union. There was apparently an undercurrent of unease in some brigades at the length of the strikes. A large number of complaints were received from individuals in the less experienced areas along the lines of ‘no one told us that we were going to lose so much money’.

It has to be noted that this is when the campaign began to fall apart and it must be put down to a lack of preparation of the membership in those brigades that had not experienced strike action before. Either the EC had failed to represent their members’ views or failed to properly explain the strategy.

Going on strike had given control of the dispute directly into the hands of the members. The picket line provided a good opportunity to put the message over to the public, provide a focus for the action and reinforce members’ solidarity. Going back to work was a let down which took all momentum away.

The executive council faltered at this point and snatched at the first opportunity to resume talks and abandon the fundamental pillar of the dispute - namely the pay rise. It was around this time that ‘£30k now!’ became 16% spread over three years. It was also about this time that the government spin machine went into overdrive.

Talks dragged on over Christmas and despite a brief return to the picket lines in January it became increasingly obvious that there was no stomach for the fight at the highest levels of the union. At a time when leadership was most needed it was lacking. There was opposition to continuing strike action, but this came from a vocal minority. If the members had been called to return to the picket lines in a determined effort to force a favourable settlement, then there is no doubt that the vast majority would have responded with the same solidarity that was shown when they first walked out on November 13.

Sadly this was not to be and the function of the executive council changed from persuading the members that they were worth it to selling a series of inferior deals. Whilst the first recommended offer was resoundingly rejected by a vast majority at a recall conference, the damage had been done. The membership became increasingly demoralised and took the next opportunity that was presented to pick up the employers’ fourth ‘final offer’.

Who was active?

The dispute saw a wide variation in militancy which resulted from different levels of past activism and to an extent the north-south divide.

London, which is by a long distance the largest metropolitan brigade in the country, had a history of poor support for action over many years. However, in the last five years a change in the officials had seen a gradual increase in activity. A number of skirmishes over station closures and cuts to services had been met with increasing militancy. In addition the rampant inflation in house prices meant that despite London weighting allowances the vast majority of FBU members were unable to afford to live in the communities that they were protecting.

London came from nowhere to become one of the driving forces in the fight for fair pay. The same economic necessities also affected a number of south east brigades. Region 10, representing East Anglia and Bedford and Essex, were also prominent in the campaign. The latter, Andy Gilchrist’s region, has a long history of militancy. Essex has had to resort to strike action to win disputes twice in the last decade.

In the end some unexpected brigades and regions were the ones pushing for acceptance of the final disastrous deal. Strathclyde, a massive Scottish brigade, has a long history of political militancy. In the end the leadership, which includes two current national officers, had to go all out to persuade their members to pick up the final offer. This work included one national officer spending the entire week before the recall conference canvassing branches in order to ensure acceptance. This ‘yes’ vote was only achieved by a tiny majority of 30 votes out of 3,000. Only one Scottish brigade voted for rejection and this was in the face of strong lobbying of brigade officials by regional officers.

In recent years in a process of promoting fairness two new executive council members have been elected representing the black and ethnic and women’s sections in the union. These two new members joined three others representing retained firefighters, officers and control staff, and account for a voting bloc of nearly a third on the EC. Whilst welcoming the representation of special interests and underrepresented members on the EC, the ability of these sections to influence a vote has to be a concern for the membership.

Outside support

Because of the nature of the dispute - a challenge to the government’s policy of low wages in the public sector - the dispute attracted a lot of attention from many sections of society. Experiences on the picket line would indicate that on the whole there was a great deal of public support from members of the public, from the ‘Honk if you support us’ gesture to practical donations of both money and provisions. This support was another reason why the withdrawal of strikes was a blow to the morale of the members.

The TUC gave verbal support from the beginning of the dispute. A unanimous supporting resolution of the general council was in direct contrast to the situation in 1977, where their position was the opposite. Despite this support the general secretaries, Monks and Barber, along with the so-called wise heads of the TGWU and GMB, were instrumental in pushing the policy of ‘talk, not walk’, which was so damaging to the eventual outcome of the strike.

Some individual unions were extremely supportive of the dispute. The health and safety campaign, which called for risk assessments of the workplace, was a practical way in which solidarity action could be undertaken without breaking employment law. Notable among these unions was the RMT, whose leader, Bob Crow, was one of the most vociferous in campaigning for the FBU. This was to the extent of preparing to ballot its London Underground members for a strike against the victimisation of those staff refusing to do work they considered unsafe.

All this union activity was a sign of the importance many attached to the FBU claim. Our fight was their fight against a government who were unabashed in their determination to hold down public sector wages. A highly organised single trade union was strongly placed to take on the government. The failure to carry the fight to a satisfactory conclusion is a bitter let-down for those less able to defend themselves.

There was the expected support from leftwing political parties and approaching Labour MPs was also an interesting exercise. Whilst they expressed their private sympathy for our pay claim, only a few notable exceptions were willing to publicly support the dispute. Only when the government started to push through legislation to impose a settlement did a sizeable number find it in themselves to rebel.

Rank and file activity was minimal throughout the dispute. In April 2002 a group of 15 from around the country met to discuss the implications of the pay claim. The announcement of the 30k claim wrong-footed the left in that it exceeded their wildest speculation. Throughout the dispute the numbers varied very little from the original meeting.

There was a general failure to form a wide-ranging representative movement. This was partly due to the initial size of the claim, but also partly due to the infiltration of the group by those who were willing to follow the EC line without criticism. The FBU is widely regarded to be a leftwing union. The left group of the EC was easier to identify by the two or three that were excluded. Was this a reason for the failure of the rank and file to organise?

The largest and reportedly best meeting of the rank and file came only two weeks before the end of the dispute. This was the first meeting that was advertised on the ‘30K’ website. One of the biggest complaints from members was the lack of information. This on the surface was somewhat surprising.

Regular branch and brigade committee meetings were held to inform members of developments. Head office had published more than 70 strike bulletins in the six months of the dispute. The fact is, however, that people felt excluded from the decision-making process and for that reason many turned to an unofficial website for news on developments.

The official website failed to fit the bill. The FBU site did update on a regular basis and all official publications were available on line. It failed, however, to provide an adequate bulletin board or forum for members to voice their concerns. Nature abhors a vacuum and an unofficial site stepped in to provide that platform. This site was initially supported by the leadership, but towards the end they came to mistrust and despise it with a paranoiac zeal. What had initially become a rallying point for members became a place to go to criticise the direction and leadership of the dispute.

The government

The fire service had been the responsibility of the home office for as long as anyone can remember until it was transferred to the DTLR under Stephen Byers about two years ago. With the reshuffle following the departure of Byers, the fire service was once again transferred, this time to the office of the deputy prime minister. In the time that Labour has been in power there have been numerous ministers who have had the service as part of their remit, but few have had any impact.

It is open to speculation why the fire service has been passed from one ministry to another. One theory would be that with the pay dispute looming it was a poisoned chalice, with very little to be gained for any minister who found themselves in the middle of a big dispute. Another theory would suggest that John Prescott was the acceptable face of Labour for the trade unions and would be more able to handle any upcoming dispute.

Whatever the reason and despite the long run-up, the government was not ready when the fire dispute began.

For many months from the start of the campaign the government appeared in disarray. Ministers, including the prime minister, would put forward differing views within minutes of each other, spreading confusion throughout the media. The one consistent theme, however, was that there would be no rise without ‘modernisation’.

As a delaying tactic in early September the government set up an inquiry into the fire service, headed by Sir George Bain. This was clearly not independent and was outcome-led, in the sense that the terms of reference included the zero cost/cuts agenda. The FBU refused to recognise the review and this may have been an early mistake, in that it allowed ministers to portray the union as obstructive and resistant to change.

The government may have been slow off the mark, but when the spin machine got into full swing the results were devastating. At the time that a resolution was in sight in mid-November all government press officers throughout Whitehall were put on the case. Despite the hostility to the government in many parts of the press, when agendas coincide the effect can be very impressive, and this was the case in November.

The Sunday papers were full of personal attacks on the leadership, and general attacks on the wider membership. Despite the secondment of three press officers from other unions the FBU were unable to cope with the intensity of the attacks. From personal experience public opinion went through very little change, but the membership appeared to be demoralised by these attacks and most importantly the leadership began looking for a way out.

One of the myths that the government promoted was that the army was more than coping on strike days. This was patently untrue but the perception was not challenged in the press. The army was overstretched - a fact which was admitted by senior armed forces personnel. The commitments that they were undertaking were about to be challenged by the impending attack on Iraq.

The need to provide and train troops meant that the army was being stretched to an unacceptable degree. The morale of those on fire cover was low because of lack of leave and poor pay. This provided a tactical advantage for the union but not one that was pursued. If strikes had continued before Christmas, the collective mind of the government would have had to concentrate on resolving the dispute. Instead their postponement meant that the government was able to plan for war and simultaneously undermine the FBU membership by appealing against strikes whilst ‘our lads’ were fighting.

This pressure and the threat of imposing a settlement along with a strike ban were instrumental in demoralising the membership and paving the way for the disastrous deal that was finally agreed.

The employers

The employers’ side of the national joint council provided the principal negotiators in the pay dispute. This group is Labour-led and mirrored the government’s agenda. For the most part these councillors are ineffectual puppets of fire service management at best and incompetent at worst. At one stage they were willing to make a deal but were stopped by government and never really recovered - with all subsequent negotiations dominated by the need to consult with government on the tiniest detail. In the end they were no more than go-betweens.

The regions

Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales all played an influential part in the dispute. There was strong support from all these regions at the outset, but towards the end they were instrumental in the final acceptance of the deal.

Northern Ireland managed to get the vote out in spectacular style. An 82% turnout returned an unprecedented 97% in favour of strike action. This mandate was a massive endorsement of the pay campaign and it makes their support of the settlement more puzzling than most. The Northern Ireland region managed to gain the support of many local politicians, which speaks volumes for the efforts made to progress the brigade into a non-sectarian organisation. It is disappointing to note therefore that the region’s officials chose to second the EC resolution to accept the deal.

Scotland’s behaviour during the dispute is even more puzzling. As in Northern Ireland, local officials were able to gain the support of many more local politicians than those in England. Once again local officials supported the dispute at the outset, but in the end this traditionally militant region voted overwhelmingly for an inferior deal. Rumours that a deal had been made that would soften the impact of the modernisation package north of the border may explain this puzzling stance. There is also the threat of forming a breakaway Scottish FBU, which has loomed since devolution.

The deal

The deal that was finally agreed is nothing more than selling jobs for a mediocre pay rise. The future of the fire service is one of a reduced number of firefighters working more hours on fewer stations with fewer fire appliances. The only successful part of the deal was the achievement of pay parity for retained firefighters. The abandonment of equality for emergency fire control staff pay is one of the greatest betrayals of the entire dispute.

The pay deal of 16% is entirely dependent on the delivery of cuts. One authority has already declared that it is rejecting the pay increase on these grounds. It is a great turn-around for what is supposed to be a strong militant union to be recommending to members that they allow jobs to go in order to achieve a poor pay rise.

The abandonment of a longstanding ban on overtime is also a great shame. Many thousands of jobs have been created by the willingness of members to forgo extra pay in order that someone else could have a job.

The final settlement is so full of holes and unexplained detail that it is a recipe for industrial unrest for many years in the future. Fire cover will be decided on cost alone, with the UK being the only developed country without a centrally determined minimum standard.

The press

The press and electronic media have never been as all-pervasive as they are now. At one stage of the dispute there appeared to be a camera crew based at every fire station in the country. It is to the credit of the membership that there were very few times that the ordinary firefighter failed to be on message. This level of understanding astounded the hard-bitten hacks, who usually expect to uncover one duff interviewee.

The constant presence of the press meant that they recorded many incidents where firefighters left the picket line to attend emergencies. This made good television and put members in a good light, but served to cover up the inadequacies of the army fire cover.

The press, whilst occasionally providing a platform for individual members, was instrumental in demoralising a large number. This was particularly evident at the highest levels of the union. When the government spin machine finally got its act together, the onslaught was incredible. The blanket coverage brought the union’s press office to a standstill. They were unable to cope with the deluge of requests for information and interviews.

In addition the personal attacks on the general secretary appeared to take an enormous toll.

The press coverage following the tragic events in New York on September 11 2001 elevated firefighters to the status of heroes. This adulation spilled over to the UK and many firefighters must have believed the stories. It would have come as a great shock to many then when the Tory press turned on them. Whilst most of the vitriol was directed at the leadership, it must have shocked many to fall from grace in such a spectacular fashion.

Achieving the vote

For the first time since the members went on strike the executive council got its act together in promoting the final offer. The humiliating defeat on the recommended offer to the first recall conference this year must have stung them into action. The spin machine got rolling again and the only difference from the initial pay campaign was that this one was not accompanied by caps and whistles.

A number of strike bulletins and circulars sold the deal with a great deal of blatant poetic licence. The deal and its recommendation by the EC were presented to a weary membership who were scared into acceptance by threats of an imposed deal and the removal of the right to strike. The final outcome of the vote at the third recall conference this year was testament to the effort that was put into selling this deal. It is a pity that a similar effort was not put in to winning the dispute.

Is everybody happy?

There is a great deal of dissatisfaction on fire stations and control rooms. At recall conference the only person trying to make out that this was a good deal was the general secretary and even he was lacklustre. Even those voting to accept were under no illusion that the deal was an escape and not a victory.

There are many calls for votes of no confidence and wholesale resignations of the union leadership. The anger and demoralisation of the membership will take a long time to recover. Whilst it is understandable that such an outcome should lead to such calls, a pause for thought must be taken as to what should or would take its place.


The final deal may lead to the inclusion in consultative bodies of scab unions. Some uniformed members of the fire service were unwilling to take part in strike action to obtain a pay rise (they are all too willing to take the money though). The numbers in FOA and the RFU have risen slightly, but they still represent a tiny minority. The inclusion of these associations on any negotiating body will only serve to weaken their effectiveness.

Could we have won?

It is difficult to say whether or not, if a determined campaign of strike action had been pursued, a much better settlement could have been achieved, but the doubt will always linger. Many activists were acutely aware of what happened to the miners in their dispute and this might have caused some of the hesitation which led to the cancellation of strike dates.

At the time the strikes were first cancelled the government and the employers were in total disarray, other unions were very active in support, the public were on our side and the vast majority of the membership had just had their first taste of strike action. We were holding the winning hand. If the planned strikes had gone ahead, then the dispute would probably have been over before the New Year, whatever the outcome.

With concerted and determined action a satisfactory outcome could have been achieved. The 30k aspiration may not have been met, but the union would be in a much better position than it is now, with a demoralised and sceptical membership.

Where do we go now?

The UK fire service faces a very uncertain future. A lot of the detail of the final offer has yet to be filled in. What is certain is that there will be job cuts, not all of which are guaranteed to be by natural wastage. There will also be cuts in the cover that the service provides to the community. The push for community fire safety will not make the need for an emergency response go away.

It is imperative that activists within the union organise now in order to put forward a coherent and united response to proposed cuts in conditions of services. Despite the disappointment at the outcome of the dispute a lot of experience has been gained and a lot of new activists will have been created. It is important to turn the disappointment into determination that an effective fire service is preserved and those working in it retain their conditions and levels of pay.

The future of affiliation

The disaffection of many members at the treatment that they have experienced from the Labour government runs very deep. Countless numbers have already withdrawn from the affiliation part of the political fund. Many of those have vowed never to vote Labour again.

This year’s annual conference has been postponed and it is in the balance whether it will go ahead or not. More than 30 brigades have submitted motions regarding affiliation to the Labour Party. A campaign for conference to go ahead is already underway, but it is important that any move to disaffiliation is well thought out.

Trade unions must remain active in the labour movement working towards its stated goal of a socialist society. Simple disaffiliation leaves the union without direction and the danger is always there that members may be attracted to the silky promises of the right. Disaffiliation must go hand in hand with a campaign for a workers’ party led by the trade union movement.