Firefighters say strikes are the only way the country can avoid a “disaster.”
At this point, Lee Hunter, 44, is struggling to remember what he and his colleagues didn’t have to miss because of work.
“We do without family Christmas, family celebrations, we can work on our children’s birthdays,” says the father of two.
But he wouldn’t change it for the world. No, Hunter tells Metro.co.uk, he and so many other firefighters won’t be quitting anytime soon.
These days, however, staying comes at a price — a literal price, says Hunter: “Many struggle to survive on the wages we earn.”
This month Tory MP for Bassetlaw Brendan Clarke-Smith proposed that struggling fire service personnel depend on food banks (as there are more and more these days) “learn how to budget”.
“There will always be people with unique situations who occasionally need help, regardless of income,” he tweeted, “but using it as an example every time now gets a little absurd.”
Hunter knows other firefighters who use food banks – and he could soon be one of them.
“I’ve seen my own bills increase tremendously, including grocery bills,” he says. “While my own family hasn’t used a grocery bank, we use a local grocery center where, for a subscription fee, we can purchase items that would cost more than the fee. This type of community initiative is vital to us.
“It keeps grocery bills lower while other bills go up. We made a conscious choice not to use the heater as often and while our children didn’t notice a change at Christmas, my partner and I chose not to buy gifts for each other.’
Backed by the unions and tired of years of low wage growth, a long list of workers in the UK – from nurses and lawyers to brewery bottlers – are on strike.
Industrial action is often seen by workers as a last resort to quell demands for better pay in the face of rising inflation and unemployment cost of living crisis hit.
Now the fire department seems to be next. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) will elect its members by January 30 to decide whether to join the picket line.
A trainee firefighter earns just under £25,000, while a fully qualified firefighter – one who has to enter burning buildings to fight blazes – earns £32,000.
Control personnel, who identify the location of the fire and assist those on the other end of the line, start with just £20,000. Your annual salary will increase by £5,000 after five years of service.
In addition, firefighters are more than three times more likely to die from certain types of cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals, a January study found.
The last fire and rescue service nationwide strike was in 2003, when employees fought for a 39% pay rise while the FBU bagged a 16% raise.
In May last year, firefighters were offered a 2% pay rise despite inflation at 9.1%. Now it’s almost 11%. The FBU says the 2 percent salary offer followed a real pay cut of around 12 percent between 2009 and 2021.
But demand hasn’t dropped. In fact, FBU members told Metro.co.uk it has risen, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic and as climate change makes blistering heatwaves and flooding a reality.
Hunter believes the service must go on strike, a desire sparked after the FBU turned down a 5% salary offer in November – the 2% previously offered was an “insult,” he adds.
The 5% pay rise would have come with some stipulations – it would not have been funded centrally, so cuts would have had to be made for it. “It’s insulting,” he adds again.
Although the government is not directly responsible for wage negotiations, it does provide a significant portion of funding directly to fire departments across the country.
The Government claims the wage bill for the UK Fire and Rescue Service is £2.25 billion – every 1% pay rise for firefighters could cost £22,500,000.
But the FBU points to the tens of millions in unpaid taxes and the more than £30,000,000 that would be raised if ministers applied a 1% wealth tax, closed inheritance tax loopholes and other measures around Britain’s wealthiest.
“FBU members don’t want to go on strike. It hurts us financially and keeps us from doing the work we love,” adds Hunter.
“However, we have been placed in this position by a government that has left us no choice. They have repeatedly attacked our payment, they have repeatedly attacked our terms and conditions.’
Lisa Hicks, 48, has over 20 years of experience between working in London and with the Hampshire Fire Rescue Service.
After realizing that a career in architecture wasn’t for her, she took what she now describes as the “best job” in the world.
Then the pandemic happened. Countless firefighters died on the front lines of Covid-19.
“The pandemic has shed a light on the people who keep the country running – ‘key workers’ they called us. Without it, you as a UK citizen cannot be safe,” says Hicks.
“Firefighters have been doing everything they can during the pandemic. We transported bodies to the morgues. We worked in intensive care units, assisted nurses and drove ambulances.
“Being exposed to so much trauma on a regular basis… we’re about to face disaster.”
“Morale is at the lowest level I’ve seen when we’re so underrated,” she adds.
“We always come when you call us. We will do our best to help you and your families. But it’s getting harder. Much more difficult.
“But we’re going to have a recruitment crisis soon because as much as everyone loves the job, if you can’t afford it you have to take care of your family.”
Among those voting for the strike is Gordon Nimmo, 43. He joined the brigade a decade ago as a permanent firefighter at Cupar Fire Station.
“I came because I wanted to do something interesting and different and because I was settled in the city – married and with kids,” he says. “It allowed me to give back to the community I lived in.”
He started working as a full-time firefighter at Glenrothes Fire Station in 2019.
But something Nimmo learned — and quickly — is that there’s a finite amount that can be done for a life-saving service with so little money.
“We can’t help if we don’t have enough staff behind the device,” he says, adding that since 2021, one in five firefighting jobs, or about 11,500 people, have been cut.
Of the 43 fire brigades in England, 41 are have lost at least 10% of their funding due to more than a decade of Tory government cuts.
With the drying up of money, the number of employees also runs dry. The number of firefighters employed in England has fallen by 21% or 9,444 jobs in the decade to 2020.
“We’re in an emergency response role, we can’t effectively fulfill that role if we’re underequipped and understaffed,” adds Nimmo.
Hunter first joined the fire service in 2003 with the Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service (MFRS). Three years later he trained as a firefighter.
“Becoming a firefighter was something I wanted to do since I was a kid, I had always had high praise for firefighters. That hasn’t changed,” he says.
“I’ve seen the very best in people who do the most extraordinary things just to help others in need.”
Industrial action was something Hunter never thought possible all those years ago, but now he worries that soon he and other workers won’t even have that option.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, amid the recent spate of labor unrest led by ambulance workers, nurses, rail workers and more, proposed anti-strike legislation.
The law would give employers in key sectors the power to sack striking workers and sue unions if so-called “minimum service levels” are not met.
“The right to withdraw from work is a basic human right,” says Hunter.
This government has already shown on several occasions (Windrush, Grenfell, Rwanda policy, etc.) that it has a total disregard for human rights and it does so with this latest attack.
“If they keep trying to enforce this, there can only be one answer for me,” he adds, “more strikes”.
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https://metro.co.uk/2023/01/22/firefighters-say-strikes-are-only-way-country-can-avoid-catastrophe-18082228/ Firefighters say strikes are the only way the country can avoid a "disaster."