Firefighters Are Fighting Back

Amid spiralling inflation, firefighters and fire control staff received a measly pay offer of 2%. Their union is encouraging them to reject it – and is ready to fight back.

In May the government published a fire and rescue service white paper, which detailed, among other things, huge threats to collective bargaining machinery. (Mike Harrington / Getty Images)

On 27 June firefighters and fire control staff received a pay offer from their employers, via our collective bargaining machinery. The two percent offer is set against current annual inflation of 9.1 percent, amounting to a huge real-terms wage cut which is obviously entirely inadequate.

But we should not be surprised. Firefighters and control staff, like everyone in the public sector, have seen years of attacks on pay, driven by central government policy. Fire Brigades Union members have been treated appallingly by their employers. Firefighters’ salaries have been cut by nearly £4,000 in real terms if you compare 2009 and 2021—equivalent to about a twelve percent cut.

In both the public and the private sector, it is workers who are being made to bear the brunt of the cost of living crisis, just as austerity was driven through after the great financial crash of 2007-9 and just as we are made to take the brunt of the economic damage that came from the pandemic. In other words, we are living through an all-out assault on workers.

While workers across sectors are seeing unbelievably low pay, those who make the most money from our society are making more money than ever. The world’s ten richest men doubled their fortunes during the first two years of the pandemic, at a rate of $1.3 billion a day. Meanwhile, the income of ninety-nine percent of humanity fell during the same period.

In some organisations and sectors where workers are struggling, bosses are receiving huge amounts of reward in pay and bonuses. We stand in solidarity with university staff forced to ask for campus food banks, while their vice-chancellors are paid nearly £270,000 on average. We stand in solidarity with railway workers striking whilst the Network Rail chief executive earns nearly £600,000. We stand in solidarity with P&O workers sacked en-masse by a company where the CEO earns £325,000 a year.

So firefighters’ and control staff’s two percent pay offer comes in a wider context of a grotesquely unjust society. It comes in a context of workers being treated badly across our country. It comes in a context where there is a vital need for workers to stand with each other in the face of common threats.

For us, as a union, the next step is to consult our members. This will now take place in FBU branches up and down the country over the next three weeks. The union’s executive council has recommended that the pay offer is rejected.

The Fire Brigades Union and its members do not take industrial action lightly. But our members will now, inevitably, begin to discuss all options, including strike action.

We are some way from that at this point in time. We will always look to ensure that all efforts to resolve an issue have been exhausted before we consider or take industrial action.

In line with this we will be writing to national fire employers, and seeking confirmation they have written to and met with the Westminster fire minister to request the additional funding needed to properly boost pay. We’ll also be writing to ministers and government departments in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

For firefighters and control staff this is not some far-away issue. This is an issue of being able to afford their mortgage and their bills and putting food on the table for their families. We have firefighters and control staff forced to attend foodbanks. It’s outrageous that in one of the richest countries in the world, increasing number of working people can’t afford to eat.

Appallingly, this isn’t the only government attack on firefighters and control staff at the moment. In May the government published a fire and rescue service white paper. It detailed huge threats to, among other things, collective bargaining machinery (machinery by which firefighters and control staff can come together and negotiate pay and conditions with their employers), and much of our members’ right to have a say over their roles. In other words, it is a direct attack on firefighters’ ability to stand together in the face of attacks and oppose them.

There is a reason the government wants to attack this. Firefighters standing together works. It works as a way of repelling the government’s plans to wear down the fire and rescue service and wear down firefighter terms and conditions and health and safety. It works as a way of winning vital progress in this areas.

The attacks in this white paper aim to allow employers to drastically worsen terms and conditions for firefighters. Coming out of a pandemic where firefighters took on extra tasks to help the pandemic response, putting themselves at further risk, and in the middle of one of the worst economic periods for working people in decades—that is a total disgrace.

The fight for fair wages, for fair terms and conditions, and against the cost of living crisis will only be won by solidarity. By workers standing by each other and standing up for each other, and organising and standing up for themselves.

We have never waited for the powerful to reach down and give us what we need, because they never will, unless we organise and build power of our own. That’s how we’ve won in the past, both in the fire and rescue service and elsewhere, and that’s how we’ll win now.