Firefighters to strike again

By Jonathan BarnesFIREFIGHTERS' leaders ordered last night a fresh 24-strike over the bitter fire service pay dispute, which could coincide with military action in Iraq.

By Jonathan Barnes

FIREFIGHTERS' leaders ordered last night a fresh 24-strike over the bitter fire service pay dispute, which could coincide with military action in Iraq.

The executive of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) called for a walkout next Thursday after rejecting a “final” offer of 16% over three years, linked to changes in working practices.

It is expected to be endorsed by members at a recalled national conference of the FBU in Brighton next week.

The announcement sets the union on a fresh collision course with the Government, which had urged acceptance of the “generous” deal.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford said he could not believe any “reasonable person” would refuse the offer at such a “sensitive time”.

Most Read

Military resources will be stretched during any conflict in Iraq, making it difficult to commit thousands of troops to provide emergency cover for striking firefighters.

Striking during a military conflict could risk a public and political backlash, although the union maintained it still had public support for its demand for a near 40% pay rise to take salaries to £30,000.

Paul Woolstenholmes, secretary of the Suffolk FBU, said he felt “let down” by the Government after its latest pay offer.

“I'm very annoyed. I really think we are dealing with a more devious Government than the Tories. We are talking about the whole job of a firefighter being turned on its head,” he added.

Mr Woolstenholmes insisted the firefighters should not be criticised for going on strike while military action was looming in Iraq.

“This dispute is completely separate from sending troops to the Gulf for a war nobody wants. We are not getting dragged into it.”

Del Godfrey, chairman of the Essex FBU, said: “The whole package amounts to a worse offer than the one last year.

“It would bring in a regime that could see job cuts of between 4,000 and 5,000 nationally, with about 100 here in Essex.

“We are not prepared to take a 16% rise - which isn't really 16% at all - in return for the decimation of the fire service. We are not in the job of selling out.”

Mr Godfrey said he understood the public would feel “extremely uncomfortable” with firefighters on strike as thousands of troops were committed to the Gulf.

But he added: “If we don't do it, there will be wholesale decimation. In five years' time the fire service would be nothing like it is now - there will be more fire deaths and much more fire damage.”

The FBU warned there would have to be “significant” changes to the offer to make any progress in the dispute, but local authority employers made it clear no new offer or document would be given to the FBU.

The dispute now enters a critical phase following months of failed negotiations and a series of strikes which saw military Green Goddesses rolled out to provide emergency cover.

There have been 15 days of industrial action since the first strike in November, although the union has called off some stoppages in an effort to kick-start negotiations.

The pay claim was first presented to local authority employers in April and talks first broke down in September after an offer of 4% was tabled and quickly rejected.