Fire union hit by defectionsin long-running shifts dispute

Paul Whitehouse

LARGE numbers of firefighters have defected from the Fire Brigades’ Union in protest at the way a long running dispute, which has resulted in strikes, has been conducted.

The FBU had almost all the service’s workforce of around 750 firefighters as members until recently.

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But more than 100 have since walked out, including a whole tier of managers who all resigned on the same day.

Many of those who have left the FBU have signed up with an alternative organisation called the Fire Officers Association, though the FBU say some have since decided to return.

It is understood those who have made the switch include some known as staunch trade unionists.

In addition to managers, some of those who have left the union are fire station-based watch members who staff fire engines.

Until now, the FOA has represented only senior management and has had to extend its membership to include more junior members of the service.

Brigade secretary Ade Robinson said FBU members continued to drift towards the association and he expected that to continue.

He disputed a claim that some of those who had joined the FOA had since returned to the FBU.

Mr Robinson said: “All levels, from firefighters up to senior managers have decided to change their representation.

“We pride ourselves on being a professional service with no political aspect, we are there just to represent members and do the best for our members.

“The opinion from some people was that it was getting extremely difficult for them to have their views heard. They are voting with their feet,” he said.

The majority of FOA members have not signed up to the brigade’s proposals to alter shift patterns.

Mr Robinson said: “We are a progressive organisation and we accept that in this climate there has to be change,” he said.

The FOA was keen to agree changes without “a confrontational aspect”, he said.

The change in FBU membership has allowed the service to plan more robust emergency fire cover measures in the event of strike action than might otherwise have been possible.

Some strikes took place in the autumn but were suspended to allow for further talks.

During those periods, the brigade was still able to keep up to 16 fire engines available, backed up by up to 14 Category Two vehicles, able to deal with smaller fires.

Two further strikes, totalling 10 days, had been planned but were then cancelled to allow for arbitration aimed at resolving the dispute.

Those negotiations involve the National Joint Council, a body recognised by both the brigade and the FBU, and are continuing.

Attempts to enter binding arbitration with conciliation service ACAS failed because the two sides could not agree terms of reference, the starting point for negotiations.

Brigade management argue they could save the public 4m a year by adjusting shift times so firefighters work tours of even 12-hour shifts, rather than long nights and shorter days which are in place at present.

The savings would come through cutting the amount of unproductive ‘rest time’ spent at night, making way for more training and fire safety work.

The FBU believes that change would have a negative impact on its members’ domestic lives and has fiercely contested the move as a result.

Yesterday FBU branch secretary Ian Murray said the union had seen some members “drift” to the FOA at the start of the strikes, but claimed many were now applying to rejoin the FBU.

He added: “We are aware that we have lost a couple of members during the dispute as you would expect, but the longer it has dragged on, we have had people reapplying.

“The majority of those who left were middle-managers, who were pressurised to work during the strikes - but just this week we have had half a dozen apply to come back.

“It is not something that is of particular concern to us. We knew that management were pushing some people towards the FOA.”