Tories attack frontline firefighters with White Paper – Ben Selby, FBU Vice President


“Stand with firefighters and let’s fight against these attacks as a movement – head-on!”

Ben Selby, FBU Vice President

By Ben Selby, FBU Vice President

The Tories have orchestrated yet another assault on firefighters by threatening to abolish our collective bargaining body. Frontline firefighters’ ability to negotiate their pay and conditions has to be protected and the Fire Brigades Union will fight tooth and nail against these draconian proposals.

The Home Secretary and the Fire Minister for England launched their long-anticipated White Paper on the fire and rescue service (FRS); while this applies directly only to services in England, it has much wider implications for all FBU members. Central to the White Paper is a review on pay and a move to operational independence of Chief Fire Officers. Also present are plans to replace fire governance with a system of single executive leaders, with PFCCs, mayors and council leaders all mooted as possibilities. The White Paper poses a significant challenge to our service and to our rights as workers.

Tories want to tear down collective bargaining structures that aided pandemic response

Collective bargaining is how firefighters and millions of other workers negotiate their pay and conditions. In the FRS, we do this via the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire and Rescue Services (NJC) – a national body that oversees the pay and conditions of firefighters and emergency fire control staff. Our union represents the vast majority of firefighters and we are strongly of the view that these arrangements must be retained to protect FBU members.

At a time when we are facing a deep cost of living crisis, this Tory government decides to come for frontline firefighters. More than ever, workers need union representation and a voice to maintain basic rights and secure decent pay. In 1997, 37% of all employees, in the public and private sector, were covered by collective bargaining. By 2019, this has fallen to only 27% of UK workers. This is no accident.

Firefighters – like other workers – were part of the valiant effort to tackle the pandemic. This included firefighters driving ambulances, delivering vital supplies to the elderly and vulnerable and moving the bodies of the deceased. Firefighters, through their union, negotiated a contract which kept them safe and allowed important work to protect the public to take place. These duties were agreed through our collective bargaining structures. Yet the Tories want to pay thanks for this service by ripping up the same structures that delivered it. This simply is not good enough.

There are legal barriers to the proposal to remove collective bargain structures from the fire and rescue service. Principles common to ILO Convention 98 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights require that a state must not interfere with existing bargaining arrangements that are supported by the parties – the FBU supports these arrangements. Furthermore, there is domestic law that will present numerous procedural barriers if these proposals were to be implemented.

These attacks will no doubt not just be on the fire and rescue service either, they will be wreaked on trade unionists across the public and private sectors. We have already seen teachers cast as the enemy within for having the temerity to demand safe classrooms for them and their pupils.  Further, proposals to introduce minimum service levels on the railway and the sinister Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill are but to name a few examples. There is no length this government won’t go to to blame working-class people for the rise in the deaths, the second wave, for Eating Out to Help Out – the list goes on. We must stand shoulder to shoulder as a movement to defend comrades against these nefarious attacks.

Tories want to give Chiefs carte blanche

This White Paper also includes so-called ‘operational independence’ for Chief Fire Officers, a ploy to bypass our collective bargaining arrangements to create a situation whereby firefighters can have their roles and responsibilities changed unilaterally and without negotiation. They wish to be able to order firefighters to undertake any work identified by Chiefs without question or challenge; the dangers of this will be obvious to all. No trade union worth its salt would allow such egregious practices to be implemented.

Firefighters’ neutrality targeted

There are further proposals on fire governance that include Police Fire and Crime Commissioners playing a role. Blurring the lines between police and firefighters is not in the interest of firefighters, nor public safety. The response you receive, when a firefighter knocks on the door compared to the police, speaks to the sacred neutrality of the FRS that should be steadfastly protected. Moreover, the threat to local democracy and removing robust oversight of fire and rescue services is an undesirable path to go down.  

Workers must fight these attacks and fight for something better 

The Pandemic and cost of living crises have only amplified the skewed power relations in society. We must not go back to the old system, we must build a fairer, more equal society that gives everyone a stake, a voice at work and hope for a better future. We can never trust the ruling class and the Tory government to protect workers; their management of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crises have revealed their utter contempt for workers and we must be wise to their future attacks. Workers should not and will not pay for these crises, workers should not have their collective bargaining structures ripped up and workers should have the ability to freely organise and protest – the labour movement needs to state this loud and clear. Stand with firefighters and let’s fight against these attacks as a movement – head-on!

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