26 Oct 2010

New talks to avert London firefighters’ Bonfire Night strike

Politicians have condemned London firefighters’ plans to strike on Bonfire Night – but urgent new union-management talks have been agreed following a debate on Channel 4 News.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had confirmed that its London members would strike on 5 November for two days – including their busiest night of the year, Bonfire Night – in a dispute over changes to shift patterns and how the changes have been handled.

But in a joint interview on Channel 4 News leaders from both the union and the London Fire Authority said they were prepared to take part in new negotiations.

Matt Wrack, the FBU General Secretary, said the union did not want to strike, but that 5,500 firefighters faced “the sack” as a result of the changes.

Brian Coleman, the chairman of the London Fire Authority, replied: “Nobody is losing their job, nobody is going to earn less money, nobody is going to work longer hours.”

With both men saying they were prepared to re-enter negotiations, Mr Coleman offered new talks at the fire brigade headquarters at nine o’clock tonight – but they eventually agreed a new meeting at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.

“The prospect of industrial action over the Bonfire Night period is disgraceful.” Fire Minister Bob Neill

Emergency cover
If the strike goes ahead, there will be 27 trucks, with trained firefighters, provided by AssetCo on 5 November – compared to the usual supply of 169 for Bonfire Night.

In an emergency statement to MPs, the Fire Minister Bob Neill condemned the strike – which would also coincide with the Hindu Diwali festival.

He said: “The prospect of industrial action over the Bonfire Night period is disgraceful…Such behaviour is reckless and cynical and it is no credit to the Fire Service.”

He said he was “shocked” at what he claimed was “intimidation and bullying” of the temporary replacement firefighters during an eight hour strike in London last Saturday.

Busy Bonfire Night
A spokeswoman for the London Fire Authority told Channel 4 News that Bonfire Night was one of its busiest periods.

“On 5 November last year, we had 224 reported incidents that we attended,” she said. “For example on other days, we had 51 on 3 November, 66 on 4 November, 95 on 6 November and 101 on 7 November.”

But she stressed that there would be cover from AssetCo this year if the strikes go ahead. The so-called “green goddesses”, provided by the military to cover previous strikes, are “no longer suitable” to cover strike action, she said.

“The message to the FBU is short and simple. Call the strike off and talk.” London Fire Authority Chairman Brian Coleman

Under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004, fire services have a legal duty to plan for emergencies and take “reasonable steps” to ensure it can continue to provide cover during strikes.

London firefighters plan to strike on Bonfire Night (Reuters).

Shift changes
The firefighters are striking in protest against plans to change the start and finish times of duty for its frontline firefighters – by reducing the current 15 hour night shift to 13 hours, and increasing the 9 hour day shift to 11 hours. Discussions have been ongoing about these changes for five years.

Similar changes have already been accepted by firefighters across the country. Some of the negotiations, such as in the West Midlands, included strike action.

The union in London is claiming that the firefighters face dismissal if they do not agree to the new shift patterns. It says the firefighters received letters on 11 August saying their contracts would be void in 90 days’ time and they would have to re-apply for their jobs under the new shift patterns, or face dismissal.

The strikes come as public services across the country, including fire services, also face spending cuts.

The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said David Cameron did not think it was “responsible” and backed Mr Neill’s verdict that the strike was “reckless and cynical”.

London Mayor Boris Johnson said: “There are solid contingency plans in place to deal with further firefighters’ strikes and Londoners should be confident that they can go ahead with their fireworks parties but, as always, take tried and tested precautions by following the Firework Code.”

A spokeswoman for the Labour leader Ed Miliband, said: “It would be a dangerous situation. Hopefully it will be resolved by then. We would dearly like to see it resolved by then.”