Firefighters, right to strike?

With public sector strikes seemingly never ending. I ask: are fighfighters right to strike?

In the last few days the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have announced plans to strike over eight days in August. The planned walkout that will last no more than a few hours each day is the latest response from the FBU regarding proposed changes to firefighter pensions.

The actions of the FBU mimic that of other public sector workers, who have all sought strike action as a means to challenge government proposals. Raising the retirement age, alongside increasing pension contributions appear to be the universal response from the government to balance the books.

While some may argue that the proposed retirement age of 60 is a gift that should be readily accepted. Others, myself included, are aware of the physical and mental strain a firefighter endures throughout their career. Matt Wrack, the FBU general secretary, argues it is “…ludicrous that a government can impose a scheme which means that firefighters will have to ride engines and rescue people from fires up to the age of 60”.

Serviceman will have to demonstrate their fitness ability as they move into their late fifties if they wish to continue to actively serve. No disrespect is meant to the elder serviceman when I echo Mr Wrack’s concerns that it is “unsafe and unrealistic for both firefighters and the public” to implement this.

Meanwhile, former Fire Minister Brandon Lewis has stated “New principles on fitness are already on the table with our backing” Are these new fitness proposals more lenient? If so, is this really a solution to the problem? In putting forward alterations to the current fitness tests, it would appear that the government are aware of a fatal flaw in their plan to increased the retirement age.

The need for reform of public sector pay is justified by the government recurring rhetoric in response to the recession. Cuts. No matter the involvement in the cause of the economic downturn, the government does not waver in its response. Cuts. While private businesses have stabilised and restored a level of growth, public sector workers have fallen victim to circumstances they had little part in creating. With many already battling increased living costs and a housing crisis. An increase to pension contributions and the age of retirement would be the final nail in the proverbial coffin.

An often repeated rhetoric is ‘you cannot put a price on a life’, well seemingly you can, and this is reflected in the firefighter pay scale (a scale that has been previously frozen in 2010 with a 1% pay cap being introduced in 2012.) While I am not suggesting for one second that firefighters are motivated by money, I do believe they deserve a salary and benefits that reflect the importance of their job.

Fire minister Penny Mordaunt, wrote in a letter to Mr Wrack that she was “conscious that firefighters do not want to be on strike” Citing the moral issue with which every firefighter is aware of. If Ms Mordaunt truly understands how firefighters see this as the ultimate last resort, then she will also be aware that firefighters are not greedily milking the government for every penny in their favour. Should she not therefore be questioning her proposal?

The government seems content to stand firm, in effect goading the FBU to call for further strike action. As a result the FBU and striking firefighters will not doubt be demonised in order to encourage the public to shame firefighters into accepting the new proposals. However, I ask, when reasoned arguments fall on deaf ears, what other choices remain? Strike action is an extreme that should be exercised with severe caution. It can put the wider community at risk, and firefighters more than any other individual understand the risk involved. It is therefore a testament to their cause that they should see strike action as the right option. If this does not highlight the unreasonable proposals put forward by the government then nothing will.