fire brigade: will london burn?

The inside story of what is really happening in the London Fire Brigade, as told to The Commune.

16th September 2010 and the London left descend on the London Fire Brigade Headquarters to join the mass lobby of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) monthly meeting called by Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Unison LFEPA Branch.

the FBU are perceived as militant, but we need to break down the division between 'frontline' and 'support' staff

The headlines of the ’left’ press only tell part of the story: ‘FBU up the ante in contract dispute’ (Morning Star 17th September), ‘London Firefighters ready to strike against dismissal threat’ (Newsline 18th September), ‘Brutal bosses? Time to fight back!’ (The Socialist 23rd-29th September) and ‘The ballot is on to save fire jobs’ (Socialist Worker 25th September).

LFEPA is the elected body that runs the London Fire Brigade. It is made up of elected Greater London Assembly (GLA) councillors and appointees of Boris Johnson, the London Tory mayor. LFEPA is controlled by the Conservatives and is chaired by Brain Coleman, an outspoken Tory Barnet councillor, and hate figure for the FBU London Region.

What LFEPA and The London Fire Brigade (LFB) Commissioner, Ron Dobson, want to do is change the existing shift system of firefighters. This has been an issue that has been simmering across the UK fire service for a number of years. Changes have already been made in South Yorkshire, but Region 10 of the FBU (London) is seen as the most militant and only with the change of government has LFEPA felt embolden to taken them on.

Currently, the 5,800-plus London firefighters work two day shifts, 9am-6pm (nine hours) and two night shifts, 6pm-9am (fifteen hours), with ‘four rest days‘. What the employer is proposing is a twelve hour day, so shifts are of equal length e.g. starting at 8am and finishing at 8pm and nights starting at 8pm and finishing at 8am. As the London FBU is not playing ball, the employer has started the process of introducing new contracts with the new shift pattern.

While the employer has tried to justify this change based on fewer fires at night, the FBU is fully aware that once this shift pattern is brought in, fire stations could be closed in the evening and so reducing the number of fire engines and firefighters required and increasing the risk to the public as fire engines have to travel further distances in response to 999 calls leading to increased casualties, fire deaths and damage to homes and commercial property.

In preparation for the October public spending review senior LFB managers have already discussed making cuts of between 20-40%. At the top end this would result in 50% (550) of the office based jobs being cut, 25 fire stations being closed, 32 fewer fire engines and 160 firefighter jobs being cut. Many of these senior operational managers who had been FBU members were offered promotions to Deputy Assistant Commissioner, an extra £13k a year, but only if they gave up their FBU membership. However, they ironically still want trade union protection and have joined Prospect.

Essential workers versus essential work

What happens in London will have implications for the FBU UK wide. This is where the story ends for the ‘left’ and some sections of the FBU, both nationally and in London. The ‘left’ media coverage has replicated the FBU’s sectional approach to a broader struggle developing within the London Fire Brigade and potentially elsewhere in the economy. What we see is ‘frontline’ services versus ‘support’ services, the false dichotomy being played out by omission.

Firefighters are essential, measured by the column inches and so-called non-essential workers, who are also in a trade dispute, ignored by people who should know better and so de facto accepting the line put forward by the government, the official opposition, parts of the trade union bureaucracy and the middle class media, that cuts have to be made. The consensus only breaks down over the issues of the details of the targeting, the depth and the speed of the cuts and the spectre of inducing a ‘double dip’ recession. As one LFB office worker told The Commune, “my job is essential, it puts a roof over my head, food on the table and clothes on my back.”

Poacher turned gamekeeper

Alongside the almost 6,000 firefighters in the LFB, there are another 1,100 office workers who provide various functions in keeping the Brigade running. Many overlooked Unison LFEPA Branch Secretary Tony Phillips’ speech to the lobby, where he commented that the employer had united all three major workplace trade unions (FBU, GMB and Unison) in trade disputes and that a co-ordinated response was required. With over 80% union membership for the office staff, including the Control Room Officers who take the 999 emergency calls, the potential to shut down the London Fire Brigade is real.

On 17th August, James Dalgleish, Head of Human Resources (HR) at the LFB and former national Amicus (now Unite) officer, announced the employer’s intention to cut the redundancy compensation scheme of the office workers by 66% to one weeks pay for every year worked at the LFB and the redeployment period by 50% to three months and, if made compulsory-redundant, a maximum statutory payout of just £11,600.

Many of the office staff have worked between 20 to 30 years in the fire service in London and this change would represent tens of thousands pounds being cut from redundancy payouts. As Tony Phillips pointed out, £8m was under-spent in last year’s budget and there was over £40m in reserve; the employer was using the financial crisis as cover for this attack. Even this argument was accepting job cuts and closing job opportunities on union pay and conditions to the growing numbers unemployed in Greater London and beyond.

Opposing HR: productivity of the Human Robot

For London firefighters there is also the social impact of the proposals on their own lives. The basic pay of a London firefighter is £30k and so it is not surprising that many live outside of London and commute in and hold down second jobs to boost their incomes. For any firefighter with child care responsibilities this new shift system will further impact on them and their families.

This is also a battle over control of the workplace, productivity targets and the job. It is clear that both some senior managers and councillors resent the fact that fire stations have fully fitted kitchens, dormitories with beds, gyms, pool tables, dartboards and televisions. Firefighters need rest breaks and cannot carry out drills in the yard in the middle of night, so the majority of fire stations have residential housing next door. Senior managers are hostile even to these limited expressions of workers’ autonomy.

The workplace units of the watch (Red, Blue, Green and White) have their own workplace cultures and to vary degrees act as an extended family and a bond of trust in a job that depends on team work in sometimes dangerous working conditions. The change of the shift system at the grass roots level of the London FBU is clearly seen as an attack on this watch-based culture.

Labour councillors are also bosses

While the LFEPA meeting made no decisions on the change to shift patterns it did approve the cut to the redundancy scheme which will come into effect three days before the 20th October public spending review. What this means for office workers is the employer will be able to make mass redundancies on the cheap. The debate was also illuminating as to the actual position and the role of the Labour Party and Green Party councillors who sit on the LFEPA.

Although they spoke out against rushing this change to conditions through, they did so purely on the legality of the changes and a potential breach of a collective agreement with the trade unions. Councillor Coleman noted that they made no representation to oppose job cuts and speculated as to the reason: that they too would be pushing through their own cuts in their own respective London boroughs.

5th November: a pop or a bang?

The London FBU could be on strike come 5th November; LFEPA Unison have already carried out an indicative ballot which resulted in majority support for industrial action and it is anticipated the LFEPA GMB branch’s indicative ballot will mirror Unison. The London Region of the RMT has stated that without fire cover it will be unsafe to run the tube network. Thanks to sectionalism within the London FBU, the LFB unions have a right-wing bureaucrat in Unison London Regional office holding back an activist branch and very conservative (small c) GMB branch officers keeping their membership in the dark have all contributed to weakening workers unity.

This fear of unity was played out during the lobby when hundreds of songs sheets with the words to the Internationale and There is a power in a union (the Billy Bragg version) were distributed, yet the FBU officials limited the thousands of firefighters and office workers to chants of “Coleman out”, when it could have been so much more. The first verse of “There is a power in a union” exposes the weaknesses that will need to be overcome in the next months and years that could see the working class being the only opposition with a direct interest in stopping cuts not only to jobs and services, but a re-ordering of society.

“There is a power in a factory, power in the land

Power in the hands of the worker

But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand

There is power in a Union”