The fire service dispute and the reform of public service pay

Pay negotiations between UK fire service employers and the Fire Brigades Union broke up without agreement on 12 November 2002. The following day the union began a series of strikes, starting with a 48-hour stoppage. This feature examines the issues raised by the dispute, and their wider implications for the reform of public sector pay.

The prospect of a national fire service strike became clear in September 2002 when the local authority employers offered a 4% interim pay award in response to the claim for a 40% pay increase by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The pay offer was accompanied by the expectation that additional increases would be negotiated following the report of an independent review of pay and working practices in the fire services expected in mid-December 2002. The FBU opposed the establishment of the review, refused to contribute to its inquiries, and insisted that its claim for a substantial pay increase should be treated separately from any recommendations on the modernisation of the fire service. On 18 October, the union announced that a strike ballot of fire service staff had produced overwhelming support for a series of strikes (UK0210104F).

Attempts to avert industrial action

A week later, a peaceful resolution of the dispute seemed possible. The deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, brokered an arrangement whereby the FBU postponed its plans for two 48-hour stoppages, employers agreed to resume negotiations, and the chair of the independent review of the fire service, Professor Sir George Bain, agreed to publish guidance on pay and modernisation of the service by mid-November. After a number of meetings, the FBU stated that it was 'very pleased to have made substantial progress in negotiations on two of the four points of our claim'. The employers also noted that 'some progress has been made in a constructive atmosphere', but they reported that the main issues of pay levels and modernisation had not been discussed because they were waiting for guidance from the Bain review. The FBU postponed a strike planned for 6-14 November and agreed to meet employers after they received the Bain review’s initial proposals.

The initial proposals of the Bain review

On 11 November, the Bain review published a position paper, entitled The agenda to deliver a modern fire service. This outlines proposals for radical reform of the service, a four-stage timetable and process for their implementation, and views on the paybill consequences of the proposed changes. The paper criticises all the parties for their failure to implement past reform proposals: governments did not amend deficient legislation; local authority employers showed a lack of leadership in negotiating pay and conditions; and the FBU demonstrated only a limited commitment to accept changes for which it professed enthusiasm and, in many parts of the service, pursued 'sustained and energetic opposition to change'.

The paper argues that 'the service must develop a broad, multidisciplinary role designed to improve all relevant aspects of community safety', supported by legislation and a funding system that are not focused mainly on the need to respond to fire incidents, which comprise no more than 5%-10% of its activity. The service will require a wide range of skills and competencies, not a single role of 'firefighting', and a major reform of employee relations, including:

  • a competence-based training and reward structure to encourage the acquisition of experience and skills to enhance performance;
  • flexible conditions of service so that staff can easily move between different specialisms and functions, and multiple points of entry into the service;
  • reform of the existing shift systems to allow more flexible patterns of working time, including part-time working and the opportunity for staff to work overtime;
  • a more 'family-friendly' work environment that would attract a more diverse range of entrants than the current overwhelmingly white, male workforce;
  • a new mechanism for uprating and negotiating pay increases and the balance between a nationally based core set of conditions and local flexibility; and
  • a new and comprehensive system of human resource management

The Bain review argues that individual staff who embrace change and develop their careers and skills could, over a period of time, achieve the level of pay increases demanded by the FBU. In focusing on the current pay claim, however, the review delivers a scathing reply to the union with the judgment that 'even allowing for the risks and dangers of the service, firefighters compare well with similar jobs in the public and private sectors ... When holidays, pension arrangements and job security are taken into account, they are placed even better ... Any case for a significant pay increase therefore rests on a commitment to significant change delivering fundamental reform.'

Breakdown of negotiations

On 12 November, a meeting of the National Joint Council (NJC) covering the fire service ended abruptly after the employers, accepting one of the main proposals of the Bain review published the previous day, offered an 11.3% overall paybill increase over two years. The employers proposed that at least 4% of this amount could be paid straight away, 'when the NJC agrees to engage seriously in the negotiating programme set out by the Bain review'. The executive council of the FBU unanimously rejected the pay offer as 'derisory'. A 48-hour strike began on 13 November, to be followed by three eight-day strikes over the next six weeks.

Commentary

The fire dispute could develop into the most damaging conflict between trade unions and the Labour Party government since the 1997 election. The FBU encouraged its members to believe that, with the threat of industrial action, they could win an unusually large pay increase, and simultaneously resist the reform of their conditions of employment and working practices. In public, at least, the union has no clear 'exit strategy' from its planned series of strikes. The government and the local authority employers also have little room for manoeuvre. In the current pay round, public service employees received average pay increases of between 3.5% and 4.0%, although some groups achieved significantly higher pay settlements (UK0201172F and UK0203102F). These were justified either: by the need to deal with severe recruitment and retention problems; to facilitate the reform of pay systems and improve career progression; to eradicate unequal pay between women and men; or to help ancillary workers whose pay was only just above the national minimum wage. These factors are either irrelevant to the fire dispute, or support the argument of the Bain review that large pay increases must be accompanied by significant reforms. The government and local authority employers cannot therefore easily abandon the central principles of their pay policies, not least because unions representing school teachers, nurses and other public service groups have begun to develop their arguments for the 2003 pay review body reports and other negotiations. As always, their pay claims will stress the importance of comparability with other public service groups, and the substantial increases in public expenditure announced earlier in 2002 will have raised their expectations.

It is, of course, possible that the parties will make some concessions and resolve the fire dispute before the FBU’s first eight-day strike begins on 22 November. Longer strikes would expose the limitations of the emergency cover provide by the armed services, exacerbate the disruption to transport and other services caused by safety concerns, and pose serious political problems for the government. If all three planned eight-day strikes take place, the FBU would probably lose some of the public support it enjoys, and the solidarity of its members would be severely tested by the considerable loss of pay in the period before Christmas. (David Winchester, IRRU)

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