Why “Please, sir, may we have some more?” does not cut it as a demand in a national pay dispute

IT IS CLEAR now that FBU annual conference must be recalled as a matter of urgency. The decision by the executive council to hold a ballot for national strike action over pay has ignited debate among members across the country.

A number of members, while supportive of the ballot, have raised questions about the aims, demands and strategy that will underpin any strike campaign. These are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

The best place to debate and discuss these questions is at a recalled annual conference. Conference is the parliament of our union. It is the mechanism through which representatives of every brigade and section inside the FBU can make important decisions and hold the leadership to account.

Last week, all officials of the union were invited to attend an online briefing with the general secretary on the decision to hold a ballot. But that remote meeting was not a recognised forum within the union’s rule book, and those attending had no power to submit or vote upon any proposals.

In past years, conference has been recalled for all sorts of reasons, including to discuss an internal union restructure, NJC trials on additional work, and a proposal to reaffiliate the union to the Labour party. Conference was also recalled on several occasions during previous disputes on pay and pensions. There can therefore be no excuse for not recalling conference as we head towards a pivotal national strike on pay.

We also urge – again – the executive council to be much clearer about the demand on which the ballot is being launched. So far, members have merely been told that the employers’ offer of a 2 per cent pay rise is unacceptable and must be improved. But there is no meat on the bones. There is no definitive claim and no rationale to justify the claim. This has created ambiguity and uncertainty. Members do not know what they are being asked to strike for.

We need a clearly-defined pay claim. We do not agree with the general secretary when he says it is the job of the employers to tell firefighters what they are worth. Simply going cap in hand to the employers and asking them to give us more, but without giving them any idea of what we think would be an appropriate offer, is unhelpful and will do nothing to rally members to the cause.

Of course the union will need flexibility in negotiations. But by refusing to table any sort of definitive claim at all, the executive council is taking that flexibility to untenable lengths. That way lies mass confusion and dissonance.

There are a number of options available to the leadership. They could table a claim that takes into account some or all of the loss of pay in real terms over recent years as well as current or predicted inflation rates. They could table a straightforward claim (as other unions have done) that demands pay rises in line with the inflation rate at the point at which any deal is struck. They could table a claim that is designed to enable them to eventually reach a deal which would see pay rise in line with other public sector settlements (such as the police) this year.

This blog is not favouring any of these options over the others. We are simply pointing out that it would be perfectly possible to table a claim that, on the one hand, gives members (and the employers) some much-needed clarity while, on the other, is underpinned by clear logic and provides for some flexibility within the ensuing negotiations.

As things stand, the executive council’s claim amounts to nothing more than: “Please, sir, may we have some more?” That is no basis on which to launch a national pay strike.      

All of this shows why a recall of conference is vital. By debating these questions exhaustively at conference, a mandate can be secured for any agreed strategy, and members can then support the subsequent campaign with confidence.

Recall conference now.

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