On the 9th of December Firefighters in Bristol and across England – but crucially not the rest of the UK – were once again forced to take strike action in their long running dispute with the government over pensions. In all other parts of our semi-federal UK devolved governments had managed to come up with proposals or enter into genuine negotiations that had averted the need for strike action. Only our government in Westminster with its ideological commitment to austerity continued intransigently. Remember that when you hear government spokesmen like fire minister Penny Mordaunt decrying the selfishness of the union taking ‘unnecessary’ and ‘irresponsible’ strike action. That’s right, it was unnecessary across the rest of our country as governments were prepared to listen to the concerns of the unions and meet them in meaningful negotiations. Not in England. Not with the Coalition in power. They irresponsibly plough on with their reforms unnecessarily jeopardizing services and lives.
As Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary has said: “Firefighters in England are reluctantly calling further strike action as a direct result of the Westminster government’s failure to listen and negotiate over pensions’. No worker wants to go on strike, and lose a considerable portion of that months’ pay packet – especially in these grim days of austerity and with Christmas just around the corner. For those of us that provide essential public services, there are moral issues involved in withdrawing our labour and potentially adversely affecting the lives of people who depend on us. It takes a lot of deliberation. It is only the hostility of our government to negotiations (and victimisation of union organises like Ricky Matthews), and the unfair and dangerous nature of their reforms that has forced the Firefighters back to the picket lines once more.
This was the Firefighter’s 48th period of industrial action since the dispute started over three long years ago. We went down to the picket to give out some Solidari-Tea and coffee and show our support. Despite the cold, the long running nature of the dispute and the seeming intractability of our government; spirits were high and there seemed a genuine desire and commitment to fight on against these unfair and dangerous pension ‘reform’ plans. Their local employer joined them in walking out, illustrative of just how wide a consensus there is against these pension reforms. The changes to firefighter pensions are of the same nature as the changes to pensions across the public sector. Pay more each year, work longer, and receive less at the end; all in order to pay off some of the debt incurred in bailing out the banks when their reckless gambling in deregulated financial markets exploded in their collective faces. How firefighers, teachers or NHS staff like me can possibly bare any responsibility for the errors and misdeeds of the deregulated financial sector is beyond me, or any sensible person; but it hasn’t stopped the government from making us pay.
The reform of the firefighter’s pension is probably the most unsafe and least fair. I question the ability of staff in most public services to continue working till they’re 60. For example, I can’t imagine many primary school teachers being able to so easily connect with and relate to their students as they start pushing 60. However, to expect 60 year olds to run into burning buildings is criminal; even more so when you consider that the government’s own research indicates that at least 2/3rds of firefighters won’t be able to pass mandatory fitness tests as a natural result of aging. This leaves many facing the stark possibility of losing their job and/or taking a massively reduced pension. Not only is this extremely unfair, and bad for firefighters health; but it also puts the public at risk by forcing it to rely on aged and less fit firefighters to save their lives. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see the future likelihood of aged firemen succumbing to a cardiac arrest as they carry someone from the flames.
Of course the government doesn’t care about any of this. All they care about cutting public expenditure by any means (well any means that doesn’t cause discomfort to their friends in the elite) and pressing ahead with self-defeating austerity. Firefighters save people, not banks; perhaps that’s why the government seems so bent on attacking their working terms and conditions. As in almost everything they do, once again we see the coalition forcing the cost of the economic crisis onto those that did the least to cause it. When given the chance to exercise our right to vote in May we need to remember this, we have to get this government out of office; and we have to elect representatives prepared to stand up against austerity and press for an alternative. This alone will not be enough. Both Labour and the Conservatives (the only parties able to form a government in our broken first past the post system) support austerity, and electing a few Green (or even TUSC, Left Unity or Respect) MPs committed to opposing it won’t change their minds. If we want to end austerity and protect our public services and communities we need to come together and exert enough pressure to make them listen to us. Electoral politics is a part of this struggle, but it will only be successive if supported by extra-parliamentary pressure. In the meantime I send my full solidarity to our heroic firefighters; and hope by some miracle the government can be made to see sense. They risk their lives on a daily basis to protect us. We need to come together and support them. Their struggle is our struggle.