Fireworks in England
November 14, 2002 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Fresh in from the 'perfect timing' department - not even 24 hours after the fire brigade goes on strike, the south west of England goes on flood watch and a Fireworks factory explodes. For some added fun, the army are banned from driving the modern fire engines and instead drive famous 'green godesses'.

Even ignoring the lack of cover (644 GGs replacing 4,311 normal engines) and lack of equipment the army fire teams have, should emergency services be able to strike?
posted by twine42 (27 comments total)
I don't think anybody living off the public tit should be able to strike.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:56 AM on November 14, 2002

Governments can screw over their employees as much as a private employer can. However, that doesn't mean that they are justified putting people's lives in danger to get a pay raise.

IMO, this sort of thing is what undermines the labor movement (of which I am a fairly avid supporter).
posted by boltman at 9:59 AM on November 14, 2002

Yes, they should be allowed to strike, but...40% raise? Are they mad? Since they _do_ have a union, I assume they've had some sort of progressive raises through the years. Or has their pay been frozen at earlier, non-competitive rates?

I taught math to a bunch of firemen last year, and it was interesting to note that the younger ones were, as expected, a bit brash, but running through the age gamut, the near-retirees were absolute salt-of-the-earth. (whereas the autoworkers stay pretty brash as they age...this is of course, just my limited experience)
posted by notsnot at 10:00 AM on November 14, 2002

Should pharmaceutical companies be allowed to sell their products at market-determined prices, while the poor die from lack of medication?

Should the U.S. government be allowed to subsidize American farmers while third-worldians are starved to death by unfair competition?

The insinuation that "emergency services" are a matter of "life and death," while everything else is just ordinary business, is a slippery slope. There's just no way to draw that line, because it's a matter of scale and statistics. I'm comfortable admitting that people die because of the way other people do business: it's happening all around me, every day, and has been for thousands of years.

How would you like to risk your life to save the lives of people that can afford bottled water and wholesome food while you live on arsenic-laced tap water and mass-produced preservative-laden crap. Everyone should be allowed to strike.
posted by zekinskia at 10:08 AM on November 14, 2002

They could ask nicely. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again. And then do it again.

Or they can strike.

The FBU is not asking for £30k across the board for everyone, or a 40% rise for everyone. They want £30k to be the top wage of the grade

Anybody who's ever been involved in wage negotiations knows that you submit a claim which is a bargaining position, the employers offer less, you negotiate and come up with a figure both sides can live with.

The other part of the claim was for a new pay-rise formula. The formula intoruduced after the 74 strike, with the stated aim of taking the sting out of annual rises and avoiding the need for industrial action, was weighted strongly to camparability with the rises of skilled manual workers.

A quick look around for the average Brit' will show that they are a much smaller presence in the economy than they were in the 70s. That's why firefighters feel they've slipped behind - the people who their pay is linked to barely exist anymore, and are hardly a growth sector in the UK economy. Plus, their job has changed significantly over the past 25 years: they are much more professionally skilled and qualified. So they want a new formula linked to professional workers more than skilled manual.

The headline grabbing 40%/£30k (which doesn't apply to everybody) was a catch-up claim, I suspect designed to highlight the fact they need more than the 3% which wage settlements are running at (a standstill rise, only slightly above inflation).

My understanding is that in the first serious talks, the local government employers offered 16%. It's quite easy to see that normal negotions could have bridged the gap and come up with a package which might also include a new formula and (possibly) further joint talks over working practices/"modernisation", if needed, in a sensilbe fashion.

But Whitehall stepped in, as Labour governments so often did during the strikes of the 1970s, effectively saying that there was no way the Treasury would fund a 16% rise (let alone anything negotiated as a higher settlement) without fundamental working changes.

Talks broke down. The FBU balloted for action and got a very high Yes vote. In industrial relations, you normally use a high vote to show members' dissatisfaction and seriousness to the employers so that they can justifiably increase their offer.

Instead, the government came out with the Bain commission to recommend on an increase and changed working practices in double quick time (leaving the impression that the latter would be worked out on the back of someone's fag packet).

The FBU announced a series of 48-hour and 8-day strikes due to start on 29 October. The first 3 of these were suspended for further talks with the employer. Reports say these got v close to agreement on a new formula, and could continue on the actual pay rise.

Then the Bain report came out, suggesting 11% over two years (4% this year) and fundamental changes in working/shift patterns, including the reintroduction of overtime working. That's far less than was being offered at the beginning of talks.

Naturally, firefighters saw it as an insult which made the current 48-hour strike unavoidable ...

FWIW, what the FBU is asking for is that the top rate of a firefighter with 15 years service should be the same as a London Tube (subway) train driver in his/her first year.

Greedy bastards! What we need is a good old fashioned commie hunt to weed this pinkos out.
posted by vbfg at 10:24 AM on November 14, 2002

What we need is a good old fashioned commie hunt to weed this pinkos out.

Or some good decent footage of the army crossing picket lines. That always swells the british soul with pride.
posted by robself at 10:37 AM on November 14, 2002

No, I don't think essential safety services (police and fire) should be able to strike. But I don't necessarily think that they should be left without recourse, either. In many situations in the U.S. where strikes are prohibited, the law provides for binding arbitration when an impasse is reached.

But putting the public at risk as leverage for increased pay for a few sets a bad, bad precedent.
posted by pardonyou? at 10:40 AM on November 14, 2002

Just a little walk down memory lane, last time strikes go out of control over here :

I'll excerpt : "By January 1979 water-workers, ambulance drivers, sewerage workers, dustmen and many, many more went on strike. Bodies lay unburied in the streets because of a general strike amongst gravediggers."

Should be interesting.

The FBU could take the high road here by continuing to work, but refusing to accept pay. The London Undergound "sympathy strike" (i.e. about 100 drivers refused to work today citing safety concerns) and possibly any others that break out will quickly erode public support for the firefighters.
posted by Mutant at 10:45 AM on November 14, 2002

my thoughts exactly pardonyou. the important distinction is the fact that they are emergency services. The slippery slope argument fails because a fire is a life threatening situation in which there is only a very short window of opportunity to act.

Someone above used the example of high drug prices as an analogy. However, if you can't afford necessary drugs, there are things you can do about it. You can apply to low-cost drug programs, you can get free samples from your doctor, you can get help from friends/relatives/community groups, you can quit your job, sell all your assets and apply for Medicaid. The more apt analogy would be all the hospital emergency rooms around the country going on strike and forcing the government to set up makeshift triage centers that are far less effective at preventing permenant harm and death.
posted by boltman at 10:52 AM on November 14, 2002

People will die who would not have done if the strike had not gone ahead.

Can anyone really say that the demand for more money (even though totally justified imo) justifies the death of those with no power to effect change? I don't and I'm pretty sure that fireman will be having a few doubts too as the unnecessary deaths mount.
posted by pots at 11:14 AM on November 14, 2002

What I don't understand is why people who dedicate their lives to saving the lives of others are not paid very high wages to begin with. A society which refuses to pay the highest wages to the jobs upon which it depends deserves everything it gets when the bottom falls out.
posted by botono9 at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2002

To quote today's Metro, on the 76 year old woman who died in a house blaze:

According to union sources, firefighters left the picket line at the main fire station in Newton and went to the woman's house after they saw a Green Goddess drive past.

Print version varies from online copy

Maybe they should have considered a Sympathy Strike instead, but they're not heartless fiends.
posted by armoured-ant at 11:51 AM on November 14, 2002

Sooner or later fire brigades are going to be privatized and then they'll check your credit before putting out the fire.

I don't know when was the last time they got a raise or how well they're paid in UK, but judging from the article, they're trying to see who's nerves break down first. And that is not a very good strategy for such a vital service. But I guess it'll work.
posted by rosmo at 11:52 AM on November 14, 2002

As was mentioned above, corporations are allowed to set their own price for goods and services. If these goods and services can save or extend your life and you can't pay for them, well, I guess you're out of luck. Hospitals even operate this way, at least in the United States. Ooh, sorry about your heart attack, but we don't take uninsured people at this hospital.

If collective bargaining isn't allowed, then the only other recourse I can see is that the firefighter's start treating their job as a work for hire. Did your misses cooking get a wee bit out of hand? "That'll be 5 grand up front, plus supplies." or "House fire, huh? May I see your insurance please? I'm afraid you're not covered sir. I do have some marshmallows in the back, only 2 pounds. Maybe it'll help you get your chin up as the fire consumes your life savings and memories."
posted by substrate at 11:54 AM on November 14, 2002

The fun never stops in the hilarious logic free wonderland that is N.Ireland.

"In Londonderry, military firefighters attended a car fire which was started by youths. Ironically, the car was one used for training by firefighters at Northland Road Fire Station who were on a picket line a short distance away"
from BBC

The Green Godesses, the armys 50 year old fire engines, were long ago painted yellow so they could'nt be confused with other army vehicles, which in times past were 'legitimate targets' (sic) although army firefighters are still accompanied by police on a lot of the callouts in case they get attacked, usually by gangs of stone throwing youths. Last night out of 200 calls only 34 were genuine.
posted by Damienmce at 11:55 AM on November 14, 2002

But putting the public at risk as leverage for increased pay for a few sets a bad, bad precedent.

So.... what precedent is set by a complete loss of leverage? "We're on strike, so we're not working... except when we are?"

What zeb and vbfg said. For a service that the government is claiming doesn't deserve more money, there seems to be a huge outrage over the service not being around, eh?

Can anyone really say that the demand for more money justifies the death of those with no power to effect change?

Say... what are we at now, 200,000 troops to the Gulf? Or is it 250,000 now? Not that I'm implying anything, of course. :)
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 12:02 PM on November 14, 2002

substrate, according to adam hart-davis the fire service started after the great fire of london. it was a 'fire insurance' racket, whereby your house fire was only extinguished if you had paid for the insurance. there were signs attached to all insured houses.
as you observe, it is not inconceivable that this system could be re-instated in some way with privatisation. it reminds me of the hired security used in those rich people compounds. and snow crash.
have we come full circle? it certainly seems that all the work done to encourage a fairer society in the uk is being consistently undermined by greed for short-term profit.
as a friend of mine once said - 'i am on the side of all strikers, whoever they are, striking for whatever reason'. seems extreme, but it is the antithesis to the present 'striking verboten' approach encouraged by the multinationals.
posted by asok at 12:23 PM on November 14, 2002

substrate: Hospitals are a bad example. In every state that I'm aware of, it is illegal for hospitals to refuse to give you emergency treatment because of your inability to pay. Hospitals are usually not even allow to mention payment until after you have been treated. This is justified on the theory that all hospitals, public and private, are totally dependent on government funds to function, and therefore have to shoulder some basic obligations to the communities they are based in.

I for one am in full support of public employee unions using collective bargaining to improve their wages and benefits. I just don't think that emergency workers should be allowed to go on strike, and certainly not all at once. Surely there are other ways for the public employees unions to exert pressure on the government.

Not to sound like John Ashcroft, but rights are not absolute. They have to be balanced against competing societal interests. In this case, when it is foreseeable that striking is going to cause innocent people to die excruciating, horrendous deaths, we have the paradigmatic case for a right being outweighed by the communal good.
posted by boltman at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2002

I don't understand. In a job where you are required to regularly put your life on the line, because other people's lives are on the line you shouldn't be allowed to strike?

Should you also not be allowed to quit? After all, if you quit, that's one less firefighter to fight fires.

What about a vacation? Should you be allowed one of those? After all, fire never sleeps.

And heck, why should they even _be_ paid, after all, they're emergency services and we need them.
posted by swerdloff at 12:44 PM on November 14, 2002

boltman 'illegal for hospitals to refuse to give you emergency treatment because of your inability to pay'

so they claim they are full, or don't have the equipment required. believe, it happened to me.
posted by asok at 12:58 PM on November 14, 2002

Isn't it funny that striking union workers are said to make "demands" and "threats", while governments and employers make "offers".

Of course, the MPs didn't complain when they awarded themselves a 40% pay rise last year - and something tells me that most firefighters probably don't earn as much as most MPs.

The Government knows it is onto a loser here - the public tends towards a belief that key workers such as nurses, teachers and firefighters should be paid comfortable living wages, but if we were to do so, UK PLC would undoubtedly go bust. We do, after all, have to put aside some spare billions to spend on heavy artillery.
posted by skylar at 12:13 AM on November 15, 2002

Should you also not be allowed to quit?

And if they did, there would be 20 men lined up to take the vacancy.
posted by saintsguy at 12:17 AM on November 15, 2002

Right, there's a lot of rubbish talked by both sides on this subject. The Fire Brigade Union really must take a good measure of blame here. At the end of the last strike, in 1977, they agreed a pay formula, to prevent further strikes. Now if that's not working that has to be partly their fault. Equally one has to ask what has changed so radically from last year? Why didn't the FBU raise their low pay last year, or the year before?

The FBU is a notoriously left wing union, and questions like this add fuel to speculation that there may be an ulterior motive in the timing of this strike. Oh and Saintguy on average 40 people apply for each firefighter vacancy. In some areas as many as 500 have applied for each.
posted by prentiz at 1:39 AM on November 15, 2002

Surely there are other ways for the public employees unions to exert pressure on the government.

Well don't hold back, tell us what they are. And if you like you could assess whether they would have any impact on the government taking any notice of the firefighters.
posted by biffa at 3:25 AM on November 15, 2002

Just off the top of my head: demonstrations, publicity campaigns, campaign contributions to sympathetic MPs, walk-outs or strikes by non-essential administrative staff, banding together with a larger public employees union and all striking together (minus emergency personnel of course), supporting Tories or Liberal Democrats instead of Labour in the next election (after extracting a promise from them to raise salaries if they win of course).

These options may not be as effective as refusing to save people burning to death in their flaming houses, but they seem a bit more reasonable, given the consequences of a strike.
posted by boltman at 10:45 AM on November 15, 2002

They've tried demos and publicity - the public supports a raise but the chancellor prefers prudence.
They do have the ear of sympathetic MPs but realistically this isn't worth much with the way things are politically at the moment, and supporting the Tories or even the lib dems isn't going to get them anywhere. The FBU is only for uniformed fire staff and not admin staff so getting them to go out in strike instead of the FBU isn't going to have much of an impact. A general strike is an interesting idea. I do wonder if its legal or not (anyone know?) but its pretty difficult to do now I think given the level of preparation that is a legal requirement before any group of workers goes on strike in the UK. Sadly, there seems to be a very big gulf between going on strike and any other policy that would actually have results.

As a possibly interesting aside, the Fire Brigade Union is apparently committed to the eventual securement of the Socialist system of society
posted by biffa at 11:13 AM on November 15, 2002

And if they did, there would be 20 men lined up to take the vacancy.

...and 19.5 of them would fail the physical. There's minimums for height, and chest expansion, no glasses or contacts (which apparently have a nasty habit of melting onto the eyeball under extreme heat). You have to be strong enough to lift an unconcious human body and carry
it some way. The academic requirements are well above GCSE/High School level too (apparently, I'm cribbing much of this off my wife, who failed on the eyesight clause).
posted by inpHilltr8r at 2:52 PM on November 15, 2002

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