UK labour militancy & public order

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Wed Nov 13 04:01:01 MST 2002

Check this out for battening down the hatches and preparing us all for the
worst -- the wartime spirit is being evoked for what is apparently the
greatest threat to our national security. No, not the "daily" threats of
terror from rogue states and stateless persons like Osama bin Laden, but the
striking firefighters. Words fail to communicate just how disgusted I am
with this rancid, vile crew currently in charge of UK plc, together with
their urinals in the media corps, of which this smattering is merely a taste
(sorry to mix metaphors) of the propaganda war of a kind not seen since the
miners' strike of 1984/5.

Lest anyone think of New Labour as a "workers' party"...

Blair faces an emergency as firefighters go on strike
By Barrie Clement and Nigel Morris
The Independent, 13 November 2002

The Government is digging in for a long and bitter confrontation with
Britain's firefighters, who start a series of national stoppages at 6pm and
are to announce a second series of strikes for the new year.

Last-chance talks between the employers and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU)
collapsed after just a few minutes yesterday when the union realised
ministers were refusing to improve on a two-year deal, worth a total of 11
per cent, proposed by a report on Monday.

Tony Blair, who is facing the biggest industrial crisis since he became
Prime Minister, condemned today's strike as "wrong, unjustified and
unneccesary" and warned lives could be put at risk.

The Government made clear it abandoned any hopes of reaching an
eleventh-hour deal to avert the first fire strike for 25 years and was only
now - arguably too late - concentrating on safety issues.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, held talks last night with Andy
Gilchrist, the FBU leader, on how firefighters would respond to a national
emergency. The nation faces an initial campaign of industrial action that
begins with a 48-hour stoppage starting tonight and three strikes lasting
eight days beginning on 22 November, 4 December and 16 December.

Sources at the FBU made clear that, next week, the union might announce
fresh strike dates in support of a 40 per cent pay claim that would put
firefighters on £30,000.

A range of transport systems and industrial processes could be shut down as
workers, ostensibly concerned with safety precautions, walk out. London
Underground is planning to shut 19 stations, but some rail union sources are
predicting spontaneous stoppages that will affect services through deep

Tony Blair's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister's strong belief is that
this is both wrong, unjustified, unnecessary. It has the potential to be
very damaging, it does put safety at risk, we have to accept that." He said
the Government had "bent over backwards to be as reasonable as we possibly

The spokesman added the pay offer proposed by Sir George Bain's review of
the fire service had been significantly above the rate of inflation. But the
FBU had refused to engage with Sir George or to consider the "perfectly
sensible, reasonable" reforms he had proposed.

"There is no reason why they should be the only part of public service
immune from change." He added that, despite its protestations over pay and
conditions, the fire service regularly received 40 applications for every

Meanwhile, the shadow Defence Secretary, Bernard Jenkin, came under attack
last night for suggesting on television that firefighters were "being paid"
by Saddam Hussein.

Mr Jenkin told BBC London the union had no right to try to hold the country
to ransom by putting lives at risk, telling the programme: "You almost
wonder whether the firefighters' union is being paid by Saddam Hussein. They
are making the situation very much worse."

FBU officials said Mr Jenkin's comments were "outrageous and disgusting".

Mr Gilchrist spoke of his anger at management's refusal to budge from
proposals tabled in a "position paper" compiled by Sir George Bain that did
not improve on an existing 4 per cent offer this year. A proposed 7 per cent
rise next year was tied by Sir George to sweeping changes to working
practices that the union had already rejected.

Speaking to about 100 firefighters after yesterday's abortive talks in
central London, Mr Gilchrist accused the Government of intervening twice to
prevent a settlement. News that the industrial action was to go ahead was
greeted with cheers, applause, whistles and sounding of horns

Mr Gilchrist said: "The Government has successfully provoked a national
firefighters' strike." He said firefighters had acted with incredible
patience during the long-running dispute and strikes had been postponed, but
they had been met with "contempt".

He said: "I am extremely angry. We have no alternative other than to reject
the insulting offer which has been made to some the finest public servants
in the world."

Ageing military Green Goddess vehicles were being prepared last night to
provide emergency cover but people were urged to be more aware of potential
dangers from fire.


>From 6pm tonight, we do not know if the Army will cope
By Barrie Clement Labour Editor
The Independent, 13 November 2002

Britain will become a more dangerous place from 6pm today when firefighters
begin their 48-hour strike. While the country is on high alert over possible
terrorist attacks, members of our fire and rescue service will be on the
picket line.

The firefighters would be likely to suspend their indust-rial action in the
event of a very serious incident but they would, inevitably, arrive late at
the scene.

The Government readily admits that the replacement fire service, provided by
military personnel crewing Green Goddess fire engines, will be considerably
inferior to that normally offered by members of the Fire Brigades Union. An
internal Ministry of Defence memorandum obtained by The Independent concedes
that it would be "much more limited".

Even a relatively prosaic chip-pan fire could get out of hand without the
availability of experienced firefighters.

Response times will be greatly reduced, partly because the antiquated Green
Goddesses are restricted to a speed of 50mph. Some doubt has even been
expressed over whether the 50-year-old vehicles could reach such a speed

Most Green Goddess crews will not be able to enter burning buildings because
they will not be equipped with breathing apparatus. They will merely hose
down buildings from the outside, even if people were trapped inside, because
entering would be too dangerous.

Any emergency 999 call will be connected to the usual centre. If a fire
engine is required, the request will be put through to specialist support
staff who will alert the nearest service personnel crew. The Green Goddess
bases will not be at the fire stations.

While the soldiers, sailors and members of the RAF who have been drafted in
to the auxiliary service are under instructions to give high priority to
saving lives rather than to protecting property, their effectiveness will be
severely limited by their lack of training. The government memo says: "The
MoD would not be seeking to replicate the current firefighting capability
but to minimise, as far as possible, the danger to human life."

Deaths and injuries are far more likely to occur during the firefighters'
industrial action, which is due to begin with a 48-hour stoppage starting
tonight, followed by three eight-day strikes planned for 22 to 30 November,
4 to 12 December and 16 to 24 December. While the auxiliary fire service
will only have 12,500 military staff responding to 999 calls, the local
authority fire services have almost 50,000 frontline firefighters at their

For the five counties of the West Midlands, for instance, there will be
fewer than 50 Green Goddesses, which were all built between 1953 and 1956,
compared with 211 fire engines on a normal day.

The Government's contingency plan, which is known as Operation Fresco, will
be delivered by troops with five weeks' basic training compared with 14
weeks' preliminary instruction for FBU members whose effectiveness is
greatly enhanced by working alongside experienced staff under the leadership
of highly qualified fire officers.

During the first national fire strike in 1977, which until today had not
been repeated, many of the middle to senior managers in the fire service
were not members of the union and were able to help soldiers deal with

Green Goddess fire engines were directed by experienced personnel. Some of
those senior personnel - apart from chief fire officers - have since joined
the FBU and will be on strike with their subordinates. Firefighting methods
were also relatively basic.

Although firefighters in those days were expected to do considerably more
than simply turn up to incidents promptly and squirt water at the
conflagration, techniques have moved on considerably to deal with a wider
range of threats today.

The government memo accepts that military personnel would have particular
difficulty in dealing with chemical spills, radioactive substances and
"major industrial, commercial, rail and transport fires". The paper concedes
that "the MoD will provide a limited capability to deal with toxic

Over the past 25 years, road accidents have made up an increasing proportion
of the duties of fire crews. Hospitals are known to be deeply concerned that
Green Goddess crews will not be able to use the kind of sophisticated
cutting equipment to rescue people that is available to local authority

In some areas, National Health Service trusts have established special
surgical teams to deal with people who may become trapped in vehicles. In
some circumstances, they may have to resort to amputation to free crash
victims from wreckage.


No plan to cover terrorist attack, admit ministers
By Nigel Morris Political Correspondent
The Independent, 13 November 2002

Ministers were holding emergency discussions last night on how to secure
public safety during the fire strikes.

On the eve of the walkout, Downing Street admitted there were still no firm
plans in place for dealing with a catastrophe.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, met Andy Gilchrist, leader of the
Fire Brigades Union, to clarify the safety arrangements. One important issue
is whether firefighters will be made available in the event of a terrorist

The Prime Minister's spokesman emphasised the meeting with Mr Gilchrist had
been called "not to discuss pay but purely to focus on safety". He said the
issue was "particularly germane" considering current security fears.

He warned that the armed forces could only provide a "second-best service"
in the absence of trained firefighters and added: "I don't think anyone
should be under any illusion that by going on strike and withdrawing
emergency services you put lives at risk."

Attention is centring on a TUC code of conduct, drawn up in 1979, under
which strikers agree to suspend action temporarily during national crises.
The Government pointed out that the ambulance service maintained a so-called
"blue-light service" during its national dispute 12 years ago.

David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, said: "Given that the Fire
Brigades Union has admitted that, in the event of a national security
incident, firefighters 'will not be able to respond in a co-ordinated
fashion', the Government must explain how it plans to protect public safety
if such an incident occurred.

"Since the beginning of this crisis, we have been pressing the Government to
train military personnel on the use of fire engines.

"They should end their spurious excuses and commence such training
immediately, as this strike action may continue until Christmas Eve."

Downing Street's emergencies committee, codenamed Cobra, will start sitting
round the clock as soon as the firefighters walk out.

Downing Street said a "huge amount" of contingency planning had taken place
on how to cope with a national strike.

All 999 calls will be routed through a military control centre being set up
by the Ministry of Defence. Military operators will consult senior fire,
ambulance and police officers at a secret location before passing on details
to crews at bases. Cobra will constantly monitor the response to emergency


The military struggled to cope in 1977
By Barrie Clement
The Independent, 13 November 2002

The first nationwide firefighters' strike in 1977 plunged the country into a
state of emergency and cost the lives of several civilians and servicemen.

Industrial action, prompted by a pay dispute, started on 14 November and
lasted through Christmas and the New Year, when it became clear that the
stand-in service was struggling.

More than 10,000 members of the Army, Navy and RAF were drafted in.
Part-time firefighters who were not involved in the dispute also helped out
the servicemen and women, manning an already outdated fleet of Green

As fire crews stood on the picket lines, people were encouraged to keep
buckets of sand and water at home and brigades issued safety guides to
concerned householders.

Despite the best efforts of the stand-in military members, criticism grew
that they were ill-equipped to deal with the situation. People were shocked
when two servicemen died after their vehicle overturned in Manchester.

In Liverpool, a young woman, Elaine Johnson, lost both of her daughters and
her father when their house caught fire. She remains convinced that her
children would still be alive if there had not been a strike and described
the Green Goddesses as "hopeless".

In Scotland, 27 people died during the strike and 189 were injured - one
third of them Army firefighters.

By the end of the third week, an average of three people a day had died in
fires, although the Home Office insisted the death toll was "normal" for the
time of the year.

The strike ended amid bitter infighting among Fire Brigades Union (FBU)
activists. Firefighters' leaders were accused of a sell-out by their more
militant members. Terry Parry, leader of the FBU during the nine-week
stoppage, persuaded delegates to call an end to the industrial action at a
stormy meeting in Bridlington. Afterwards, in freezing weather, fist fights
broke out on the promenade between FBU members.

Despite considerable support from the public, the union had failed to budge
the Callaghan Government from the wage rise offered at the start of the
strike. The union had demanded 30 per cent, but was forced to accept 10 per

In hindsight, the settlement was a triumph for the FBU. Ministers had
conceded a pay mechanism that would automatically tie firefighters' wages to
the top 25 per cent of male manual workers, which was thought to have ended
the need for national pay strikes.

Mr Parry was so pleased he bought himself a greyhound to celebrate.

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