- Interview by
- Taj Ali
In the last ten years, central funding for fire services has collapsed by forty percent in real terms. 1 in 5 firefighter jobs have been lost, and for those that remain, real salaries have been cut by £4,000. Before the pandemic, there was already deepfelt anger, buoyed by tragedies like Grenfell that proved the worst consequences of that years-long assault.
By the very nature of their job, firefighters regularly put their lives on the line. This became only truer during Covid, when firefighters took on various roles outside their traditional jobs to aid the national effort, and were applauded along with the other ‘key workers’ on our doorsteps every week. In its aftermath, though, they have been slapped with yet another real-terms pay cut—and as the cost of living crisis spirals, some firefighters are being left with no choice but to use food banks.
It’s in light of these circumstances that firefighters are being balloted by their trade union, the Fire Brigades Union, on the latest pay offer of five percent—up from two earlier in the year, but still a massive cut against inflation in double digits and after a decade of similar stagnation. Should members reject the offer, as the FBU is recommending, balloting for strike action could be a next step. A strike is a frightening thought for both workers and members of the public, who rightly recognise that a fire service strike could have serious consequences for public safety—but with the fire service being stripped of its power to do its job bit by bit, and with politicians refusing to listen to reason, many also recognise firefighters are being left with few alternatives.
Ahead of that consultation’s end, Tribune sat down with Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, to discuss this growing wave of anger among firefighters, the prospect of a potential strike, and how we build an effective trade union movement for the twenty-first century.
The Fire Brigades Union has been around for 104 years. In that time, instances of national strike action have been few and far between. If a resolution is not reached, the fifth national strike in the FBU’s history could be a real possibility.
It seems fair to say strike action, particularly in an industry like yours, is only taken out of sheer desperation. How desperate is the current situation?
Even using CPI, we estimate that a firefighter is about £4000 a year worse off than if our wages had kept pace with inflation over the last twelve years. That’s a percentage loss of about 12%.
Fire service pay is negotiated through collective bargaining. The fire service employees don’t have to follow Westminster government pay policy, but since 2012, we’ve had pay settlements that have broadly reflected what the Westminster government has said—starting with 0% in 2010 and 2011.
Cuts in real pay have caused a lot of demoralisation. Some people just want to fight back, and that’s great. Other people get demoralised about the fact their employer, their chief officer, and the politicians don’t give a damn about them or the job they do. Most firefighters are very proud of their work, but they want to be able to do it effectively, professionally, and also with decent conditions. And these 12 years have been a never-ending grind of one thing after another.
We submitted a pay claim letter in May, and we got a response on 27 June, with an offer of 2%. We consulted our members, who unanimously rejected that offer, and began to discuss what we would do next. That carried on through the summer. Then, at the beginning of October, we had another meeting of the National Joint Council, and they increased that offer to 5%. But that was clearly still a significant pay cut in real terms.
We’ve now started a consultative ballot on that issue with a recommendation to reject that pay offer. We’ll then meet and discuss the outcome of that ballot, including options around industrial action.
When I speak to firefighters, I get the impression that this is about more than just the pay offer. Tensions have been bubbling below the surface for a while now. How has the sector changed over time?
Austerity cuts have affected us in lots of ways. Central government has slashed grants to the fire service. On top of that, they’ve tried to attack our pensions: individual fire services are still not paying what they’re legally required to pay our members in pension entitlement, so we’re now taking them to court. Then there’s the slashing of jobs. We’ve seen 11,000 jobs go across the UK.
That means they’ve closed fire stations on an unprecedented level. They’ve got rid of fire engines. Sometimes the fire engine is made available only at certain times of the day. For the firefighters, it means that they’re turning out with fewer people riding on the fire engine, a smaller crew. Our policy is that there should be five people on every pumping appliance—the main fire engines you see in the streets. We’re seeing that reduced to four, increasingly, and we’re seeing some chief officers trying to push people out with three. You can’t safely do the job with three people on a fire engine, when you’ve got to wear breathing apparatus.
Then there’s been things like changes to shifts, which affect how our members work. Firefighters work generally on what we call ‘watches’. On the watch, traditionally, you’d have a safety net to cover for things, so you could release people for training, you could release people for leave, and you could take account of sickness. At the fire service I used to work at, if you had two fire engines, you could ride with ten people, but you’d have thirteen on the watch to cover those things. They’re now getting rid of those extra places.
Ultimately, it’s all about driving down the numbers. When Boris Johnson was the mayor of London, the London Fire Brigade lost about 1000 jobs altogether. The worst period was when ten fire stations closed in a single round of cuts, and even in smaller fire services, one fire station or one fire engine can have a serious impact.
Those attacks that we’ve had—conditions of service, job numbers—all undermine the ability to do the job effectively. It’s all explained away by the claims that we’ve got falling numbers of fires in the UK because of the way people heat their homes, or because of the decline in smoking. But fire remains—and fewer fires don’t mean that when you have a fire, you should have fewer firefighters turning out to stop it. It still takes the same number to put a fire out.
For us, that was highlighted by Grenfell, and the fact that the government were not prepared for something on that scale. They claimed it could never happen. We had warned that something terrible could happen, and it did.
There are still buildings at risk all over the country. We’re flying by the skin of our teeth.
Being a firefighter is a job for life, isn’t it? When you’ve been trained in the profession and worked in it for decades, there’s often no other option but to get on with the job, despite successive real-terms pay cuts. But now we’ve got the cost of living crisis. What’s been the impact on the workforce?
We’ve got one video interview that we use in the campaign, of a London member speaking. He’s saying he’s totally reliant on having a second job, and even then, he still can’t afford to pay his bills.
A firefighter in London can’t afford to buy anywhere on their salaries, so people are moving further and further away from their workplace, and therefore you’ve got increased commuting costs. People end up staying at friends’ houses when they commute into work.
More recently, we’re getting reports of real hardship. One of our officials was saying last week that he’s signing off requests for people to go to food banks because they need some sort of authorisation. Many firefighters are carefully thinking about when they put the heating on in the house. We’re certainly not the lowest paid group of workers in the economy, but it’s hitting people, and there’s real growing anger on it.
One issue for us is the pandemic. We kept the fire service going during the pandemic—our members were required to go into work throughout—and in addition to that, we made the decision to support activities to help the health service and other agencies in the national interest. We had people driving ambulances, training people to use PPE, and delivering PPE and other items to care homes and vulnerable individuals.
What brought it home to me was that we had special teams who volunteered to move the bodies of the deceased. We did all that, and got claps like other key workers. But as soon as Covid began to ease a little bit, we faced this cost of living crisis, with no rewards whatsoever at all for the work people did.
According to the opinion polls, there’s widespread support for firefighters taking strike action. Nonetheless, the narrative we’ll probably hear over the coming few months, if essential workers do end up going on strike, is that you’re putting lives at risk. How do you respond to that argument?
It’s a really difficult one, because it’s the truth. It does put safety at risk. Deciding on strike action is horrible, and there’s no getting away from that. I remember in 2002, during the first strike I participated in, seeing people walking out, and they were in tears over it—individuals who had reputations for being big, tough people.
It’s not something people want to do. Equally, they’re not willing to be treated with contempt.
My argument is that it’s not us who’s doing that. When you’ve got employers and chief officers who have done nothing for 12 years about falling living standards or cuts to the service, the situation is their responsibility. We wish we weren’t in this position at all.
We haven’t taken a decision yet, and I can’t guarantee anything, because I can understand why people are hesitant. But there’s undoubtedly a lot of anger, particularly in light of the crony contracts that the government handed out to their mates during Covid, the way some people made lots of money while others were suffering and dying. There’s a growing awareness of inequality and injustice, and that’s what’s causing this anger.
Hopefully, that’s reflected in a huge wave of action, in some capacity. We need to build a massive movement of protest that either forces the government to shift fundamentally and backtrack, or, frankly, forces them to get out of the way.
Many people have seen the wave of industrial action this year as a new source of strength for the Left, but we also can’t ignore the fact that recent electoral history shows the Left often struggles to resonate with working-class communities. How do you build a massive movement in those circumstances?
The left has declined since the 1970s: my view is that we’ve got to face up to that and try and work out what we can do to rebuild. Particularly, the left is often seen as very middle class and student influenced, or a bit cranky, and not sufficiently rooted in workplaces and working-class communities. We’ve got a left-wing tradition in our union, for example, but far fewer members today are involved in left wing politics than they would have been thirty years ago. We need people involved in trade union struggle and activity, but it’s a political struggle as well. The two have to interlink.
One of the possibilities of Corbyn was that you could have built a Labour Party like that, setting the target of a million Labour Party members, so that you’ve got people in every street and community. That’s how you answer the Sun and the Daily Mail and so on—by having people rooted in communities who are leading local struggles, whether it’s in the workplace or about housing, or local services and schools.
We also need a serious discussion on how we rebuild a new trade union movement for the twenty-first century. There are lessons from history, here. There have been times in the history of British trade unionism when unions were limited to very skilled workers, and it took particular struggles like the match girls’ strike and the dockers’ strikes at the end of the nineteenth century to spread mass trade unionism. At that time, people doubted the ability to organise people like that, but workers did become organised, and socialists were heavily involved in the process.
We’ve got a similar situation today with the gig economy, bogus self-employment, and lots of the problems young workers go through when they come into the labour market. There are also some of the smaller non-TUC unions. All of those, I think, we should try and work with and support. In general, the unions have got to offer more—it can’t just be ‘join us and give us your money so we can offer legal services.’ It’s got to be a message that in your workplace, we are going to help you to demand concessions and make practical change.
The FBU has also been heavily involved in the Grenfell campaign and inquiry, and one thing that struck me, again, is the need for new mass tenants’ movements, seeds of which are being planted through ACORN and renters’ unions. All my kids have lived in the private rented sector, and I never have. My generation is shocked by how young people are treated by landlords, and that should be turned into a national scandal—there should be a massive rebellion over it. People are campaigning on evictions, rents, cladding, but it’s important that we draw those struggles together to build the sort of stuff you saw in the 1920s of mass tenants’ organisations, which stopped bailiffs from evicting people. We need to build that, alongside rebuilding in the workplace.
There’s a massive generational gap when it comes to these topics, too. For my generation, a lot of us were never really taught about the unions in school—or any working-class history, for that matter. What role do you think political education can play in building a mass movement?
If we had the movement we need, we’d have dozens of newspapers, we’d have TV channels, we’d have YouTube channels, all sending stuff out. On one level, it seems such a huge task because of the scale of what we’re up against. You need to build a complete counterculture, not in a hippy way, but a counterculture rooted in working-class experience that answers the way things are presented by the mainstream—a narrative that says you can change things. You can change your own lives, if you are organised.
That is a huge task, but we need to face up to it if we want things to change.