The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) had planned to hold a two-day strike on 5 and 6 November, to coincide with bonfire night and Diwali. On 4 November, however, the industrial action was called off. The strike was to be held over new terms and conditions being imposed on firefighters, with the potential for up to 5,000 to be sacked if they did not accept the new shift system by the end of November. Workers say the new shift system would put the public at risk.
Fire brigade bosses won an emergency court agreement that striking staff would not intimidate or impede scab firefighters from working (a scab is a strikebreaker, someone who breaks a strike by crossing the picket line to go to work, thereby undermining the collective action). The managers sought the injunction after claiming that picketing firefighters had tried to block fire stations during an eight-hour walkout on 1st November. The FBU rejected this in court but agreed on a series of conditions, such as no ‘intimidation’ of scabs and a maximum of 10 picketers per fire station.
Firefighters have said that striking was a last resort in their struggle and that they would have worked during the strike in situations where people’s lives were at risk. One striking firefighter in London is quoted saying: “If there’s a fire, we’re going to go and have a look. If it’s a warehouse with no one inside, we’ll let it burn down. If there’s a life at risk, you’d have a job to do to stop everyone here going to sort it out. That’s why we joined.”
The London Mayor Boris Johnson phoned the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and instructed him to ensure that police officers were ready to intervene to protect strike-breaking private sector contractors, AssetCo Fire and Rescue. This came after two picketing firefighters were run over and hospitalised by scabs last week. The first incident happened in Croydon, with a Fire Brigade manager driving a car into a group of picketers, and the other in Southwark, with a scab driving a fire engine into picketing firefighters. Strikers have accused strikebreakers of failing to help the injured firefighters.
Striking firefighters were warned that they faced losing their right to their current pensions if they continued with the strike action. Civil servants advised that participation in the strike would constitute a “break in service”, which would mean the London Fire Brigade would be entitled to cancel strikers current contracts and issue revised ones brought in for people joining the brigade from 2006. The new contracts would mean firefighters have to work an extra five years before they get their pension and would not receive the same benefits.