There are some strikes where even the most diehard Tory can see that the union has got a point. But in the London firefighters dispute it is completely baffling as to why 79% of these brave men and women have voted to walk out on October 23 and November 1.
Ostensibly the dispute is all about working hours. Currently they work a 15 hour night shift and a 9 hour day shift. The employers want to change that to two 12 hour shifts, with the same amount of down time. They have been trying to get the FBU to agree to this for five years but eventually have lost patience and decided enough is enough. So there are no job losses, no station closures, no increase in working hours and the same four days on two days off shift pattern.
Last night on my LBC show we had quite a few firefighters phone in, several who had voted against strike action, but more who had. The conversations were very good natured and constructive, but the one thing I noted was that every one of them had a different reason for striking. Hardly any cited the reason given on the strike ballot paper.
Brian Coleman is the chairman of the London Fire Authority. He's just been on Ken Livingstone's LBC show giving a cast iron guarantee that there will be no night time station closures, which is one of the reasons given for strike action. He's said they will accept a 13-11 hour shift pattern rather than 12 and 12, but the unions won't accept this without a £10,000 payout per firefighter.
I think two issues come out of this. Firstly, there should now be a clamour for the Coalition government to introduce legislation to ban strikes in the emergency services. Under the International Labour Organisation agreement, convention 87, any government is entitled to do that. And the TUC is signed up to this too, I believe. At the very least there should be compulsory arbitration in disputes which affect the emergency services. I have always been a fan of so-called 'pendulum arbitration' where an arbitrator doesn't recommend a wishy-washy compromise but instead either has to accept one side's case or the other. That means that both the employers and the unions are likely to be rather more cautious in what they demand or offer right from the start.
Secondly, London will be put at risk on October 23 and November 1. Let's just hope we don't have a major incident on either of those two days, because there will only be 27 fire appliances available for deployment, rather than the 165 on a normal day. I have little doubt that if the worst happened, firefighters would indeed turn up at their stations, but I was astonished to hear FBU general secretary Matt Wrack say yesterday that they would continue the strike in those circumstances. He clearly doesn't know his members very well.
Lions led by donkeys. Just like the RMT.