As Birmingham basked in hot sunshine, the burning issues of a national 1 percent public pay cap, the rolling out of controversial free schools and plans to make firefighters work up to 60 took centre stage outside the city’s town hall yesterday.
Like the other 1.5 million workers out on strike across the country, they wanted to send a clear message of defiance. 2,000 demonstrators joined in with music, chanting and cheering as union leaders and workers laid bare the reality being faced by them and their families if things don’t change.
“I am worried because I am going to have to cut back the amount of hours I have my heating on this winter,” said Sally Maybury – a low paid worker in benefit services. Ironically she revealed she claims in-work benefits herself, just to pay all her bills and feed her family. “How many people here,” she asked the crowd to huge cheers, “would like to be on £26,000, the national pay average?”
The life and death nature of the dispute was underlined by firefighter Dave Pitt, who took to the stage revealing the dangers posed to firefighters and the public if government plans to make them work till they are 60 are not opposed. “Government pension changes will see firefighters in their late 50s and early 60s attempting to rescue people from house fires, road traffic collisions and potential terrorist incidents. This is dangerous for the public and for firefighters,” he said.
A recent academic report on firefighter fitness by the University of Bath undermined the government’s proposals, arguing that higher fitness levels are required for firefighting than those suggested by the government to defend the idea of working until 60. The FBU is worried the cynical proposals will lead to the sacking of firefighters before they can claim their pension. Pitt added: “That is a shocking way to treat men and women who risk their lives day in day out.”
What is clear from the show of strength was the varied reasons people were on strike: those who are politically opposed to the government, militant activists and those who simply feel they have run out of options. But with the looming possibility of increased ballot voting thresholds and shorter time frames for them to be legitimate, PCS assistant general secretary Chris Baugh believes the time has come for increased and wider coordinated action.
“There is now a momentum building up in local government, in the fire and health service, to put pressure on this government in the build up to the general election,” he said. “We’re fighting not just for our terms and conditions but we’re fighting for quality public services, something which represents the fabric of our society. All of what we are doing is geared to getting a negotiated settlement.”
The next nine months will be critical to see who holds the balance of power in the dispute. Prime minister David Cameron has said the next Tory manifesto will see a tightening of the anti-trade union laws, while the leaders of the country’s biggest unions promise escalation of industrial action in the private sector in coordination with the public sector workers. With both sides refusing to budge, industrial peace in Britain looks a long way off.
First published at The Industrial Reporter