Darrall Cozens, President of the Coventry Trades Council (personal capacity) reports on the latest strike action by FBU members against attacks on their pensions and outlines the strategy needed by firefighters – and all workers – to beat the Tory-led Coalition and their programme of austerity.
The remnants of Hurricane Bertha sweeping across the land could not dampen the spirits of firefighters on rain-sodden picket lines today. In glorious sunshine yesterday, FBU members across the country resumed strike action in their dispute with the government over changes to pensions – increases in retirement age and in pension contributions.
Over an 8-day period from August 9th to August 16th strikes will take place each day from midday to 2pm and again from 10.59pm to 11.59pm. Comrades are urged to visit picket lines at your local stations to show solidarity with FBU members.
Government calls off talks
Once again firefighters have been forced to take strike action. It had all looked so promising when the previous Fire Minister Brandon Lewis had been ousted in the recent government reshuffle, being replaced by Penny Mordaunt. She was on record as stating, “I would be happy to receive any representations they (FBU) wish to make to me even during industrial action”.
Yet talks scheduled to take place on Thursday August 7th were suddenly called off – by the government! Speculation is rife. Was Penny seen to be too accommodating? Had she overstepped the mark? Was she reined in by the government’s hard line? Is the government afraid that to be seen to be making any move towards some kind of concession, no matter even as small as talking, might embolden other public sector workers to follow the FBU’s example of strike action to get some kind of progress? It makes you wonder how long Penny will last, as she is the third Fire Minister in four years of this government.
So far there are no fresh proposals from the government on the table to act as some kind of basis for talks, yet the FBU has indicated its willingness to talk at any time to try and resolve the issue.
From previous articles readers will know the issues involved. Not only will firefighters be paying up to £4,000 per year into their pension pot on a gross salary of £29,000, they will also be forced to work on until they are 60, with severe penalties in relation to pension deductions if they are forced to retire earlier than 60 due to capability.
The government’s own figures had showed that most firefighters could not maintain the high level of fitness beyond 55 that the job requires, and that therefore they would be forced to retire early. A recent study by Bath University, commissioned by the Chief Fire Officers Association, came to the conclusion that even higher fitness levels are required for firefighting than those suggested by the government to defend the idea of working until 60.
The report states that, ““The present study indicates that firefighters with an aerobic capacity below an occupational fitness standard of 42.3 ml.kg-1.min-1 would not be guaranteed to be safe and effective in their ability to complete necessary roles within their occupation. Although this does not greatly differ from the current fitness standard of 42 ml.kg-1.min-1, it does indicate that the lower VO2 max standard of 35 ml.kg-1.min-1 for continuation of work with remedial training amongst operational firefighters is potentially unsafe for the majority of firefighters.”
In layman’s terms, it means that as firefighters get older they have to maintain higher levels of fitness to be able to do the job; so the unavoidable process of ageing comes into conflict with the need to be even fitter to guarantee adequate levels of safety, both for the general public who might need firefighting services and for the firefighters themselves who provide that service. It is rumoured that the government’s response on seeing the Bath report was to consider lowering the required level of fitness.
If this is true, it means that the government sets standards of fitness for firefighters to be able to do the job properly and then introduces pension changes that will penalise most firefighters with cuts in pensions of almost 50% if they are forced to retire at 55 on capability grounds. And when both government studies and now Bath University show that after 55 most firefighters will not be able to meet those fitness levels – levels that are necessary to do the job safely for the public and for firefighters – the government considers reducing the fitness levels!
While firefighters are taking strike action in defence of pensions, they have published figures showing how well the “retiring” Fire Minister Brandon Lewis has been doing with his pension provision. He contributes 9.1% of salary to his pension pot – for firefighters it’s 14.2%. The government contributes 15.4% to Brandon’s pot, but 13.8% to the firefighters’ pension pot. In total, firefighters contribute 49% to their pensions while for Brandon it is 37%. And remember Brandon’s salary as a minister is more than £134,000! Brandon has been promoted to the “safe” job of Housing and Planning Minister, the fourth person in three years to hold the post.
Build the strike action; fight for socialism.
On July 10th the FBU played a major role in taking strike action for one day alongside five other public sector unions. Plans are now being laid for another one-day strike on October 14th, with Unite, Unison and GMB having already declared their intent to bring members out. There is the potential for this to grow into a mass strike and the FBU is also considering its options.
Strikes like these are important as they show that workers are not alone; that confidence can be built; that morale and momentum can be maintained; that hope for a better future can stay alive. However, all the experience here and abroad over the past five years of austerity policies show that strike action alone, even general strikes, do not budge governments – composed of any party – intent on making working class people pay for a crisis through cuts in public services, job losses, wage reductions or freezes, and attacks on pensions.
For these attacks to stop means challenging the nature of the capitalist system that reels from crisis to crisis. Strike action to stop this government and its attacks of workers and their rights must be accompanied by a policy that has as its aim the establishment of a socialist society. That is what we as Marxists in the labour movement fight for.
- Full support to the FBU and all workers in struggle.
- Down with this Tory government – labour movement must fight for a socialist programme!
As firefighters keep up their campaign to defend hard-won terms and conditions there is also personal tragedy. Paul James Cockburn, West Midlands Brigade FBU Secretary for the past two years defending the interests of 1400 FBU members across the region, has passed away at the age of 50 from cancer. Despite his illness over last Christmas he was active on picket lines in Coventry supporting his members. He will be deeply missed by his family and fellow firefighters.