The workers approved strike action by a resounding 9-1 margin in face of the government’s "emergency" plans to mobilize 19,000 armed forces personnel to step into the firefighters’ jobs.
In Scotland, 1,800 troops are being readied to man 100 aging fire trucks in place of more than 4,500 full-time members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) operating 500 modern fire engines.
More than 83 percent of the union’s membership turned out for the October 18 vote. In Northern Ireland, the majority in favor of strike action reached almost 97 percent.
The initial October 29 actions will be followed two days later by a second 48-hour walkout. The union will then organize four eight-day strike periods in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The preparations for military strikebreaking come at the same time as London prepares tens of thousands of troops for an invasion of Iraq. Military chiefs have said that the deployment against the firefighters will affect their commitments to the war.
Central to the unionists’ fight is their long-standing demand for a wage increase. They are demanding an annual wage of £30,000 for a trained firefighter, amounting to £400 weekly take-home pay or an hourly rate of £8.50, given their 48-hour workweek (UK£ = US1.55.)
Government and employers have railed against the wage claim, saying that it would work out to a 40 percent increase, and have condemned the plans for work stoppages. Labour government minister Nicholas Raynsford described the ballot outcome as "wretched and wrong." For its part, the Confederation of British Industry released a statement describing the strikes as "very worrying" for business.
Strike could trigger ‘me-too’ increases
"The worst outcome" of the dispute, wrote the firefighters’ employers, the Local Government Association, in a submission to a government-established pay review body, is that the final settlement would trigger "a widespread series of ‘me-too’ increases for much larger groups of public employees in local government, the NHS [National Health Service] and the civil service." The bosses have offered a 4 percent wage raise. "No government can afford to see pay rises of 40 percent with the knock-on effects on public service pay and the economy," said Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
The government’s survival is at stake, said Prime Minister Anthony Blair, in face of the potential repercussions of industrial action by workers in the public sector. "Just because there’s all this going on with Iraq, don’t think I’m not completely focused on public services reform," Blair told Labour Party members of Parliament.
The government has set up a so-called independent review body to report on the workers’ pay levels. The review "is a complete farce," said FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist. "How can we be expected to enter into a review when, clearly, the review team has already decided the outcome?"
Meanwhile, a number of part-time firefighters at four fire stations in the northeast of Scotland have joined the FBU so that they can take part in the strike.
At the same time, officials of the Retained Firefighters Union, which organizes some 4,000 part-timers, have condemned the planned industrial action and announced that they will organize their members to work alongside the military personnel.
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