Saturday, October 16, 2010

Is It Now Time to Ban Strikes in the Emergency Services?

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.


The Purpleline said...

I take the view of let them strike and eventually lose their jobs. We should be able to have private fire services that are linked to insurance companies.

Reduce council Tax by the fire brigade element and let people decide if they want a house or a pile of rubble or the Mortgage companies.

We need to destroy unions and people in public sector jobs who are quite frankly closet commies.

Thorpe said...

I believe that all of the emergency services should be banned from strike action, as the armed forces are already. Clearly, there needs to be a robust mechanism to ensure that their conditions of service are not abused over the years.

An interesting discussion is whether there would be a role for the unions in the emergency services if they were banned from strike action. I think there should be, but the power of the unions would be greatly diminished. It's interesting that the most militant unions are centred on public services.

Windsor Tripehound said...

They don't want the length of the day shift increased because this would reduce the amount of time available to them for their window cleaning and other moonlighting (and tax-free) activities.

Daedalus said...

As Tripehound says it's all down to the second jobs they have. The shifts at the moment allow them to do all sorts of other jobs, many of which will be in the black economy.

Clameur de Haro said...

Windsor Tripehound has got it spot on. The fire service have long been regarded as one of the most cushy numbers, working conditions-wise, available. The LFA should publish data on the numbers of applications received for each vacancy and show just how attractive it is.

That being so, Purpleline's let-them-strike solution is correct. If unemployment is at the levels we are told it is, then there should be a string of applicants willing to take their place.

Don't forget the achievements of Merseyside FS chief Tony McGurk, who took on the FBU and succeeded in reducing manning levels significantly while actually increasing service levels. It can be done.

MikeyP said...

It is time to ban strikes in any monopoly organisation.

Jimmy said...

"There are some strikes where even the most diehard Tory can see that the union has got a point."

Nothing leaps immediately to mind. Could you give an example?

Unknown said...

Purpleline may like to know that his idea was tried before by Marcus Licinius Crassus. The old plutocrat managed to pick up burning properties for peanuts from distarught owners, and then have his firemen extinguish the fire.

He came to a sticky end at Carrhae. All that entrepreneural skill gone to waste.

Stuart Winton said...

"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."

Presumably the problem is that during the current 15-hour nightshift the firefighters can have their kip while on duty. Thus increasing the dayshft by three hours would self-evidently mean a significantly longer working day, but reducing the nightshift hours commensurately would not obviously benefit them.

AndrewSouthLondon said...

There is no reason for the lines of demarcation between the various branches of the emergency services. The answer is cross-training and a broader set of skills between ambulance, fire and rescue services, even police, so the first on the scene can do whatever is necessary first.

I understand the FBU oppose any change in the firefighters role, instead of looking at ways to enhance their members jobs and pay. Its all about protecting moonlighting part-time jobs. Unions at their very worst.

Sack and replace all striking firemen. Reagan did it with air traffic controllers.

Unknown said...

Allow me to introduce you to the real world of political domination of the emergency services.
I worked as a Biomedical Scientist in the NHS. We were contracted to a set working week PLUS "On Call". Extra money was paid for out of hours on a "2 hours or part thereof" basis. On this you paid tax & NI but it did not count towards your pension so no deduction was made for that. This counted for usually in a largish District Hospital and upwards as about a third of your
total income.
By this means the Government of the day kept your basic salary low and thus your pension.
"Industrial action" was deemed "immoral" as innocent people's lives would be at risk. For instance if we went on strike there would be no blood transfusions as no-one would be available 24/7 to do the pre-transfusion testing necessary.
Government therefore blackmailed us as they breckoned we would never go on strike. Maggie found out how angry we were when our profession was specifically, and uniquely, excluded by her from a pay review because we had merely threatened - not actually had - to go on strike.
Governments have been blackmailing emergency services for ever and will continue to do so as long as they can get away with it.
No member of any emergency service wants to put the public at risk but they are all professionals and deserve respect and proper salaries.
Only when politicians - those same pigs with their snouts in the trough; yes the 6 so far on trial, the 2 under police investigation and those who ought to be (Laws, Wiggin, Brown etc) - live in the real world will we possibly get proper treatment for these important, more important than politicians, dedicated professionals.

ian pitman said...

You said "brave"? Have they put out any fires in Helmand? Night shifts in my area mean taking a pillow to work, sleeping and driving a taxi the next day. Is this why London firemen are against changes as it affects their second income? Somebody sort them out.

Unknown said...

A lot of the contributors seem not to be fond of firemen, a view which may change if their house were alight. Having said that, in my area we had a jolly jape some years ago when some firemen started small fires to increase call out and overtime.

We do not seem to manage a grown relationship between public servants, the public and government.

Anonymous said...

@Terry. Let me ask you a question. Do you have a PhD in biomedical sciences, as you call youself a "biomedical scientist"? Or is it the case of our washing machine repair technician calling himsef "an engineer", the common problem in our country where these designations are loosely used.

If you were poorly paid, changing you job-becoming a biology/science teacher in a secondary school for example would have doubled your salary. No one asked you join NHS.

Your ludicrous argument about emergency services, which in this case Fire Services, does not hold, when I look at the two firemen who live in our street. One of them , last time was driving a cab taking us to the railway station. I guess, he was ging to do a few rounds like that and go back to the Fire station for a siesta.

No one is forcing any one to do a job. Hence striking is so abhorrent. I see 3 failings of Thatcher govt- not privatising the BBC, signing the Single European Act and not banning strikes in essential services.

Jimmy said...

Still wondering about those tory backed strikes.


laincoubert said...

If coleman keeps his promises over night time closures and jobs etc. then what do they actually stand to gain from the change?

Doesnt matter how you divide the 24 hours up, you still only get 24 hours. At the moment FFs fit smoke alarms at the start of their night shifts. If they change the hours to 4x 12 they fit smoke alarms at the end of their day shifts instead. whats the difference. where is the benefit to the bosses? I can see the disadvantage to the FFs who lose 4x evenings a week instead of just x2. But without giving them a honest and valid reason to change, why would they want to?

If there is no actual benefit to the bosses and the tax payer, why then are they pushing this agenda all the way to the picket lines.

And lastly i seem to remember politicians reneging on cast iron guarantees before. and coleman is more of a snake than most