The head of the Fire Brigades Union has vowed to resist government efforts to change the way firefighters negotiate pay deals after winning a pay rise for members that looks set to avert strike action.
With Britain locked in rounds of rolling industrial action by mostly public-sector unions fighting real-terms pay cuts, the FBU is one of the few unions where the leadership has accepted a pay offer.
Firefighters last month called off their planned strike after employers lifted their offer from an initial 2 per cent to a 7 per cent rise. Members are expected to accept the deal after the ballot on the deal closes on March 6.
Matt Wrack told the Financial Times that one reason the union had been able to secure decent terms for its members was that the firefighters’ wages were negotiated through a formal process of collective bargaining. This means unions and employers sit down together to reach a settlement that could cover working practices or other terms and conditions as well as pay.
Collective bargaining arrangements have not yet proved a panacea to difficult disputes in the rail and postal sectors. However, striking NHS and school staff — currently locked in some of the most intractable disputes with government — have a different system. Their pay is set by ministers, after recommendations from independent “pay review bodies” which give advice after gathering evidence from all stakeholders.
Health unions are boycotting the NHS pay review body this year, accusing ministers of using it as cover for decisions that are in reality dictated by their departments’ view on affordability.
The government has now conceded the need to negotiate pay. This week it invited the NHS staff council, which includes all health unions, to join intensive talks, after opening them with the Royal College of Nursing last week.
But in a white paper last year the government proposed a series of reforms, including an overhaul of how firefighters negotiate their pay — with ministers keen to push the emergency service into pay review bodies.
The white paper said the “sluggish” collective bargaining mechanism had stopped fire service leaders deploying staff swiftly to support communities at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic — when ministers wanted firefighters to join test-and-trace and vaccination programmes.
A report published in January by the chief inspector of fire and rescue services said the threat of strike action could “tangibly” affect the response to incidents and was one reason for “urgent reform” of the pay-setting process.
Wrack called the proposals “an attack on workers’ rights”, saying the union would “fight” them. “By next week I think we will have . . . probably avoided a strike, whereas all these sectors, bigger than ours, with pay review bodies are effectively locked into strikes,” he said.
“Our offer has demonstrated that you can do something different to repeating what the pay review bodies said last year.”
The government will issue a response to its own consultation on reforms for firefighters in the spring, having delayed the document from the autumn.
Wrack said he had emphasised to ministers the fact that there were no strikes happening by firefighters because of the way pay negotiations were carried out.
“I hope they will reconsider now, because we will avoid a strike through collective bargaining,” Wrack said.
Wrack also said the government’s plans for “minimum service agreements” in key public services were misguided.
“We don’t see how you can set minimum service levels in the fire and rescue service because effectively everything we already do is at minimum service level now . . . for us it would mean signing up to unsafe work practices,” he said.
The FBU chief also chastised Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for failing to stick up for striking workers. “I think we as a union would wish that Labour would more clearly commit to supporting workers taking that action,” he said. “It gives the impression that Labour is sitting on the fence.”
But Wrack said that the FBU, which disaffiliated from Labour in 2004 but rejoined in 2015, had no plans to split again from Britain’s main opposition party.
“Whatever disagreements we may or may not have with Keir Starmer, we’re in a much stronger position to do that if we are affiliated,” he said. “If you’re not affiliated, you won’t be in the room.”
He said Labour would come under pressure towards the general election to drop its plans to carry out pro-union policies such as reversing recent Tory anti-union legislation. “The pressure will be on them not to be ‘beholden to the unions’ . . . We will demand they absolutely have to honour that commitment.”