An utter mess

In June a rotten settlement gave management carte blanche to impose 'modernisation' on firefighters' working conditions. Now the promised seven percent rise is to be phased in. Fire Brigades Union London regional officer Matt Wrack spoke to Peter Manson about the background to the latest wave of unofficial action

The ‘position statement’ issued by the employers following negotiations over stage two of the deal - the supposed seven percent - was issued in October. This caused quite a bit of anger. It spelled out clearly what had only been hinted at when the settlement was signed: for example, the document declares that long-service pay will be frozen and, amazingly, the new rank structure entails a reduction in the rate of pay for certain grades.

When this statement was put to the executive council, apparently there was nobody willing to propose that it should be recommended for acceptance. So it went out to members from the general secretary ‘for consideration’, without any recommendation for or against. I suspect that the EC, knowing that members will at last see the details, do not want to take responsibility for it.

The statement was sent out just over a week before the November 3 EC meeting and all branches were supposed to discuss it by then - a ridiculous timetable for any consultation. Our London regional committee met last week and voted to reject it, but we also demanded a recall conference: the deal requires a number of union policies to be dropped and only conference, as the policy-making body, can do that.

We had been given assurances by the FBU leadership that our 30-year ban on pre-arranged overtime - signed away as part of the June settlement - could only be removed after annual conference, which will possibly be next May. But the stage two document says that it will be lifted from November 7. So a 30-year-old policy will be dropped at a week’s notice without the union’s decision-making body having the right to consider it.

There is also a clause in the position statement about ‘whole-time retained’ duties, giving management the right to impose complete flexibility on how they employ staff on different shift and duty systems in any combination of stations. This too requires a change in union policy to be voted through by conference. However, a conference - where they would have to answer to a hostile membership - is the last thing the leadership wants: that is the main reason why they cancelled this year’s altogether.

On October 31 the employers sent an additional letter to the union, stating that the seven percent would be paid in two stages. If the union agreed to the position statement, 3.5% would be paid immediately, with the remainder being withheld until the Audit Commission had examined the potential to make savings.

The official EC position was that it has neither accepted nor rejected the document. The EC did not want to be seen not to agree it - the June settlement meant they were committed to it. But they did not wish to be seen to have agreed to it either, while the argument over the staging of the payout was still going on. In my opinion they will certainly do so, if they have not already.

Some EC members have allegedly been advising branches that, if they reject the deal, they have to be prepared to walk out again. But of course most members would not vote for another strike - I do not think I would under the current leadership! People cannot believe how the whole thing has been thrown away. It is a complete and utter mess. We were not defeated by the other side - the strikes were always solid. What happened was complete capitulation.

But there have been face-saving attempts to disguise this fact. With or without behind-the-scenes encouragement, first Derbyshire FBU announced it would only answer emergency calls, and then other brigades followed suit. But this cannot hide the fact that members are angry with the leadership and demoralised. They find it very hard to understand how we got into this position.

Decisions have been made in a completely undemocratic way. Take the latest EC. Two regions were not represented at a meeting which was to take decisions about the whole future of the fire service and firefighters’ pay. So more than 6,000 members were disenfranchised. The EC members concerned were absent and there is no right of substitution except for long-term illness. Again this highlights the need for a conference - where a delegate unable to attend could obviously be replaced.

We need to make major changes within the union - both its structure and its leadership - but to achieve that the rank and file needs to be organised. Discussions are going on to create a single, unified rank and file body - up to now three separate groups have called their own meetings.

The unofficial 30K website is continuing to play a role in this, although it lost some momentum after the end of the dispute. It livened up again over the past couple week or so, with the publication of the stage two deal. Union members are looking for some way forward and we need to give them answers.