Fire-fighters

December 06, 2002 ,

The calling off of the latest strike by the fire-fighters is a triumph for common sense.

It has been said that the current dispute is a very old fashioned one, as it's a long time since we have seen an important group of public sector workers going on strike purely over pay.

But that is to miss the point.

Public sector pay strength is a by-product of a strong economy. In economic terms you tend to get more industrial action when the economy is doing well. We have near full employment in the UK at the moment.

That means that the demand for labour is very strong, and that, therefore, trade unions are in a powerful position to demand higher wages. It also means that tax revenues are strong, and that the government can afford to invest more in public services.

The fire-fighters say that their pay formula, which is linked to manual workers' pay, has caused them to fall behind in the pay league tables, because non-manual pay has risen faster. In that sense they have a case.

But it is also true that in order to avoid inflationary consequences, pay increases have to be linked to better productivity.

My House of Commons committee recently heard evidence from Roger Thayne, Chief Executive of Staffordshire Ambulance Service. He has reorganised the way his service works; closing down ambulance stations, getting ambulances out into the community and putting defribulators into more remote areas.

These reforms have worked, and now, if you have a cardiac arrest in Staffordshire, you are fifteen times more likely to survive than in the rest of the country.

We all have to accept change. The steelworkers at ASW Cardiff did everything possible to save their jobs. They became one of the most flexible and productive workforces in Europe because they knew they faced global competition.

Yet, despite the possibility of the plant restarting in the New Year, the ASW workers do not have the benefit of secure employment, or of a good pension, guaranteed by the taxpayer; in fact, they are likely to receive as little as 16% of the company pension they expected.

I met with the Pensions Minister Ian McCartney recently, along with steelworkers from Cardiff, to urge the government to change the law, and to find a way to help the Cardiff workers. As fellow trade unionists they sympathise with the fire-fighters but they also know that pay has to be linked to productivity, and that security of employment and a safe pension are things of great value.

It is a shame that the current dispute has led to strike action; there has been too much name calling which has generated more heat than light. It is time to douse the flames and accept that talking is the best way to solve this dispute.

I believe that the fire-fighters have a strong case for a good pay increase, but it cannot just be based on comparisons with other workers.

It has to be justified in terms of changes to the fire service that will validate the extra investment from the taxpayer, and will help the fire fighters to do what the job they want to do and get back to saving lives.