Pay offer: debate stymied and annual conference sidelined (again)

Wikimedia Commons / Paul Oldfield

FIRE BRIGADES UNION (FBU) members are currently being balloted on a pay offer tabled by the national fire service employers. The offer – which can be read in full here – includes:

  • an increase of 4% on all basic pay rates and continual professional development (CPD) payments
  • a restructuring of retainer fee bandings
  • improvements to existing Grey Book provisions for maternity pay

The union’s executive council is recommending a ‘yes’ vote in the ballot. The offer, if accepted, will take effect from the annual pay settlement date of 1 July.

In the context of existing political and economic conditions, this blog does not underestimate the difficulties workers and unions face in their struggles to achieve decent pay increases, and it should be recognised that a rise of 4% would represent a small real terms pay increase.

However, the offer as a whole gives rise to a number of questions, as does the FBU leadership’s response to it.

First, it is somewhat unusual for any union to rush to accept a first offer in the way the executive council has done. The FBU received the offer from the employers on the morning of 25 April. Within literally just a few hours, general secretary Matt Wrack was telling members in a video that the executive council had ‘debated and assessed the offer’ and decided to put it to them in a ballot to home addresses and with a recommendation to accept. Around a week later, the ballot was under way. This means that many members will have voted on the offer before they or their local officials had even received proper reports about it – let alone been able to scrutinise and debate it – through the union’s official structures, such as at local committee and branch meetings.

Why the desperation to push things through at such breakneck speed and without a proper internal debate? Moreover, considering that the offer was comprised of several different strands – and came off the back of year-long and complex discussions in a number of joint working groups – was there really no scope for further negotiation on any part of it? No room to refine, finesse or improve upon the offer in any way? No questions to be asked? No clarification to be sought? Not a single follow-up meeting required between the two sides?

Most employers will make a first offer in the expectation that the union will push back and demand something better. So they generally leave themselves some wiggle room to improve upon their first offer – even if the further concessions are only marginal. That’s how negotiations tend to work. As the-then president of the FBU Alan McLean explained in an all-members circular on pay in 2017:

“The role of the executive council is to pursue the best possible offer for our members. No matter how bad, or good, that offer may be from the employers, the executive is duty-bound to strive on your behalf to achieve as much as can be achieved. Any improvements need to be teased out if it is possible. The notion that any first offer should be acceptable to [executive council members] would mean that they were not doing their job on your behalf.”

In this case, the fire service employers may well have been taken aback at the almost-instant decision of the executive council to recommend acceptance (unless, of course, the whole thing had been choreographed and a private agreement existed to the effect that the executive council would recommend such an offer if it were forthcoming).

Second, while many retained duty system (RDS) members will be better off as a result of the new retainer fee bandings, those on the very lowest band will actually face a real terms cut (of around a third) to their annual retainer (albeit the cut will kick in after three years). Why is the executive council recommending an offer that would result in such a substantial reduction in pay for a group of its members? This is not a good position for any union to find itself in. Indeed, had proper follow-up negotiations taken place after the offer was tabled, there would perhaps have been the opportunity to rectify this anomaly.

Third – and this is a key question – why did the executive council not stay its hand until annual conference had had the opportunity to debate the offer? Annual conference, made up of delegates from every local brigade throughout the UK, is the supreme governing body of the FBU – often referred to as the union’s ‘parliament’. It is scheduled to take place this year between 22-24 May.

Conference should have been given the opportunity to discuss and debate the offer. The executive council could have submitted an emergency resolution to conference setting out its recommendation and, likewise, local delegations could have made their own proposals. Conference could then have participated in a comprehensive debate and united around an agreed position. Such an approach would still have allowed for a sufficient period of activity or negotiation before the 1 July settlement date. Instead of which, the whole thing looks like being a fait accompli.

Regrettably, the complete bypassing of conference over such a significant issue is yet another sign of how it has been sidelined by the leadership in recent years.

Fourth, once again the FBU leadership did not table a definitive pay claim. Instead, it placed the ball in the employers’ court and invited them to make an offer. This seems to have become the practice in recent years. The danger of this approach is that it hands the initiative to the employers and allows them to set the agenda on pay. Unions exist to tell employers what they want and then to campaign and negotiate around those demands. That does not mean, of course, that unions should make unrealistic demands or engage in political posturing. But FBU members may start to question the value of being in a union if, every year, and on the most fundamental issue, they see the union sitting back and allowing the employers to make the running (and then, as in this case, rushing to accept the first offer tabled).

Notwithstanding that the ballot is already under way, FBU branches should continue to debate these and other questions and to ensure that senior officials are held to account.

The former assistant general secretary Andy Dark, who retired in 2023, has published a paper making several further observations on the offer. It can be read here.

You can follow us on X/Twitter and Facebook.