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An update on the London FBU’s Bonfire Night strike

Is this industrial dispute an abuse of power?

The London Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is about to go on strike over Bonfire Night period, the busiest time of the year for firefighters.

Earlier this week, I asked in a blog post whether it was ever possible for a strike by public-service workers to be an "abuse of power". I suggested that, to determine whether a strike constitutes an abuse of power, one should look at the motives of the strikers and the impact on those whose lives would be affected by the strike.

I added briefly, at the end of the blogpost, that the threatened strike by the London FBU over the Bonfire Night period would be a good example of where such a line of liberal questioning could be adopted. However, I did not expressly say that the London FBU strike over Bonfire Night was an abuse of power; but I did hint that it could be.

I was not expecting my blog post to be that controversial, but, although some people were positive about it, many others were highly critical and, indeed, very angry.

According to Nick at 4Glengate, it was an abuse of blogging privilege. Richard Hall on Twitter said I had written a piece that rendered me entirely unsuited to be a judge for the Orwell Prize. "Latte Labour", in an interesting and erudite (if rather lengthy) attack on my post, was a little more measured, but still said:

Don't get me wrong, by the way, I am not accusing Green of betraying anyone. He is consistently doing what liberals do, using appeals to disinterested reason, fairness, balance, and public-spiritedness to support the status quo whilst appearing progressive. The only sneering traitors to be seen here are The Staggers themselves. When the Spectator starts carrying pieces by union activists, I might start getting less annoyed by labour movement publications giving airtime to the likes of Green.

This was all potent stuff. The comments on my blog post were mixed overall, but contained some gems. As I had three names, said one, I must be just like Iain Duncan Smith. Many of the responses were hostile and accusatory. For example:

"Is this an abuse of power? No. These people are desperate and these strikes are not 'unnecessary'."

"The FBU isn't doing this out of selfishness or greed. They are doing it out of necessity."

"What a horrible article. No-one ever goes on strike lightly, especially not public sector workers, and that goes even more so for fire fighters. The FBU is going on strike because they are facing unfair demands by bosses, facing the sack if they do not agree to new contracts. This is unfair, and they have every right, and are indeed, right to strike. It is the fire brigade that has caused the strike by unreasonable demands over contracts, and by refusing to enter into proper talks."

Others argued that as long as a strike was called in accordance with applicable trade union legislation, then it was legitimate, regardless of any wider normative concerns.

A couple of people with whom I had exchanges on Twitter conceded that although they could theoretically conceive of a public-service strike being an abuse of power, they were not aware of any example ever occurring, and, indeed, thought that that such a strike could not happen in practice.

Matter of difference

In view of this response, it seemed appropriate to do a follow-up blog post. At least I could go further towards answering the question I posed: as to whether the strike was an abuse of power or not.

It also seemed useful to go beyond the generalist terms of the original blog post and almost all the responses to see, in the light of the specifics of this dispute, whether it was an abuse of power by the London FBU – or even a response to a prior abuse of power by the London Fire Brigade.

So, what is the strike actually about?

The most immediate and direct issue is shift patterns. Currently, London firefighters have a day shift of nine hours and a night shift of 15 hours ("9/15"). After two day shifts and two night shifts, the firefighters then have three or four days off (the employer says four, the union says three).

The proposal is to change these shift patterns. Initially, the proposal was for both day and night shifts to last 12 hours ("12/12"). However, the employer has publicly moved to a 11-hour day shift and 13-hour night shift ("11/13"). I am told by the employer that this is the only proposed change: there will be no changes to pay or other conditions.

Accordingly, the difference between the parties on this point is that between the current 9/15 and the now-proposed 11/13. And London FBU now publicly states it is willing to move from 12/12 by negotiation, so the difference may even be less than that.

Is 11/13 an "unfair demand" by the employers? Is going on strike against this proposal a "necessity"? Can it be said that opposition to the proposal is the opposition of "desperate" firefighters?

Well, interestingly, 11/13 is, it seems, what the FBU negotiated for its members in South Yorkshire, which is primarily an urban conurbation. It is therefore difficult, on the face of it, to see why the currently offered 11/13 is so bad that it is acceptable for South Yorkshire firefighters, but not London ones. Indeed, one wonders how it can really be so bad that the London area will face a firefighters' strike over the Bonfire Night period.

So I put this to the London FBU (whose press office, like that of the employers, was excellent in dealing with the research for this post). I asked what were the London FBU's objections to London Fire Brigade moving away from the 9/15 pattern.

Their answer:

The public should know that the new shift pattern the employers want us to work would lead to cuts in night-time fire cover. This was proved by the leaking of a secret LFEPA document, intended only for the eyes of senior Authority figures, which revealed how a covert team (codenamed Project PX157) has been working on ways of using new shift patterns as a means to cut night-time fire cover by withdrawing appliances from operation.

Firefighters currently work two nine-hour day shifts, followed by two 15-hour night shifts, followed by three days off. LFEPA wishes to equalise the four working shifts to 12 hours each. A 12-hour day shift would cause huge practical problems for firefighters, and would seriously impair work/life balance. Around half of London's firefighters live outside the Greater London area, and already have to travel long distances in the rush hour to and from work for a day shift. An extension of the working day from nine to 12 hours would be impractical and unworkable, and would reduce significantly the time available for firefighters to spend with their families. Emergency calls from the public are often received in the minutes before firefighters go off duty. Firefighters are contractually obligated to attend these calls, regardless of any personal commitments. This means that firefighters often work two or three hours beyond their contracted time, which could result in a proposed 12-hour day shift frequently turning into a 14- or 15-hour day shift. It would also mean some firefighters not being able to return home at all between shifts.

For clarification, I went back and asked if this also covered the current offer of 11/13 rather than 12/12.

Yes, the answer would also apply to 11/13.

Why do those objections not apply to other fire brigades which have moved away from 9/15?

The majority of brigades throughout the country have not changed shift patterns. Those that have were able to reach a negotiated settlement with the union. Only one brigade is currently working 12/12. Further, in many local county brigades, especially the smaller ones, firefighters do not have to contend with the issues of travelling and property prices that are a real problem for London firefighters. We are happy to negotiate a shift change. But it has to be a sensible and workable change.

I also asked why the Bonfire Night period had been chosen.

A range of dates have been chosen – not just Bonfire Night. We do not have the luxury of time. The clock is ticking on our members' contracts. Firefighters in London will be sacked from 26 November. We are fighting to defend our jobs and our service, and we have just four weeks to succeed.

Do London FBU prove their case that 11/13 is so bad that the upcoming strike action is necessary and appropriate? Or, in the light of this, does it seem inappropriate? Why is it so unacceptable for London firefighters if it is acceptable for South Yorkshire firefighters?

Well, before these questions can be addressed, the conduct of the employers in trying to force through the change may also need to be examined. For, on the face of it, that too seems a possible abuse of power.

Blustering

The employers served "Section 188 notices" on the firefighters. This means that firefighters can be made redundant on 26 November 2010 unless they accept the new shift patterns. Without doubt, this is heavy-handed and provocative. And, in this respect, the employers have not been helped at all by their public figurehead being Brian Coleman, who comes across as a blustering buffoon.

But what actually will happen with these Section 188 notices? What is their effect?

According to the London Fire Brigade website: "the job will still exist and offers of re-engagement would be made to everybody whose existing contracts are being terminated".

This seemed a little vague, so I asked London Fire Brigade in what ways, if any, the offers of "re-engagement" would be on the same terms as before. For example, would there be any possible changes to pay, pensions, benefits and other conditions?

Or would the new agreements be exactly the same as before, but for the change in shift patterns?

Their answer was:

Any re-engagement will not affect firefighters' pay, pension and length of service. Other terms and conditions are still part of the negotiation process.

So we are told that the job will still be there for each firefighter, and with the same pay, pension and length-of-service entitlements. The shift patterns will be different. However, it is not clear what other terms and conditions are up for grabs. These could well be the "strings attached" that the London FBU say they fear.

So, is the threatened strike an abuse of power?

On the one hand, the London FBU have the challenge of explaining why they are inflicting strike action in this particular instance when other urban firefighters have accepted what is on offer. It would also seem, if the employers are correct, that there is no adverse effect on pay or similar terms of service, even if the Section 188 notice does takes effect.

On the other hand, however, serving the Section 188 notices seems brutal, even if the (unfortunately vague) assurances about "re-engagement" on the same pay and other conditions are correct.

Losing a job is not pleasant for any person, and the prospect can be terrifying, and so it does seem an aggressive tactic to adopt. That, too, can be seen as an abuse of power.

Overall, it would appear London is caught up in a stand-off, even if the difference between the parties is not that stark.

One side is threatening to make all firefighters redundant (even though the jobs will still seemingly be there, albeit organised around different shifts). The other side is threatening a substantial strike over Bonfire Night (even though the FBU has accepted 11/13 elsewhere for its members).

If there are abuses of power in this dispute, it is rather hard to see which side is abusing its power more.

David Allen Green blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.