“What might happen in the future”

Professor Roger Seifert comments on Wednesday’s upcoming strike by firefighters.

In 1977 the first national fire fighters’ strike took place over pay and conditions. After a bitter few weeks the settlement included a system whereby pay was index linked to the pay movement among other similar groups. This meant that there was no need for national pay strikes until 2002, when the system broke down.

Again fire fighters’ pay and conditions had fallen behind other groups and the indexation system failed. The government and employers refused to negotiate in good faith and there was another bitter national dispute.

This dragged on, one way and another, until 2004, when the settlement included the abolition of the indexed pay system with a reversion to national collective bargaining over pay and conditions in exchange for changes in working practices.

This lead to an uneasy truce in which the fire fighters and their union (the FBU) kept clear of strike action on the understanding that government and employers treated them with respect and fairly in comparison to others. In 2010 this accord ended with the new government back-tracking on promises to keep pay and conditions in line with job requirements, pay settlements elsewhere, and in recognition of the job done by the fire and rescue service workforce.

Part of the government’s retreat from national bargaining and fair dealings with public sector workers, and especially with those working in the emergency services, was the threefold reform of pensions. This entailed working longer, paying in more, and receiving less. As a result teachers, civil servants, and others have had, and continue to hold, days of strike action.

It is now the turn of the fire fighters to demonstrate their frustration with employers backed by government who will not negotiate, and who do not appreciate the depth of feeling of the staff.

This four hour stoppage shows that the FBU is not prepared to risk lives of the citizens it protects, but wants to show to government and the population at large the strength of feeling and what might happen in the future if progress in talks remains gridlocked.

The writer is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Wolverhampton.