Damp Squib

The UK firefighters' pay dispute has become a circular argument about health and safety, which nobody can hope to win.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

It’s hard to know what to say about the impending strikes by the UK Fire Brigades Union (FBU). Which is possibly what counts for the acres of newsprint earnestly debating the possible causes and consequences of this potential action.

Some of the discussion focuses on condemnations of ‘Scargillite’ behaviour by union leaders, attempts to draw parallels with the national strike of 1977, and reminiscences upon the Winter of Discontent.

Other news stories list services or events that may or may not be cancelled as a result of the lack of firefighters, give handy hints about what precautions to take in your home and your workplace, and provide recent case studies of people who have survived a blaze – just to remind us of the consequences of having no firemen on hand when things go wrong.

But it is this precautionary advice that best characterises the impending strikes. Far from taking us back to the politics of 1977, the discussion about the firefighters’ action turns on today’s depoliticised obsession with health and safety. With all sides promoting their concerns in these terms, it is difficult to tell what the argument is about – let alone how it will be resolved.

The demand put forward by the striking firemen seems traditional enough – a 40 percent increase in pay. But when such demands were formulated in the past, it was as part of a standard union bargaining strategy. In this instance, nobody – least of all the FBU – seems to know what the strategy is. On the other hand, everybody from the government to commentators to the case studies of ‘members of the public’ seems to agree that the firefighters should get more money, but the 40 percent figure is assumed to be plucked out of the air.

With this confusion over what the firefighters actually want in terms of pay, one gets the impression that the 40 percent demand is only part of a general call for more esteem. The FBU’s slogan is straight out of a shampoo ad: ‘Because we’re worth it!’ And up to a point, it works. Whatever you think of police officers, teachers, Tube drivers or other public sector workers, firefighters are worth it because Firefighters Save Lives.

When just about every profession is viewed with cynicism, firefighters stand out by the clarity of their moral position. When they are not cleaning equipment or rescuing cats, they prevent people from suffering the kind of deaths that nightmares are made of. This is particularly true in the world post-11 September, where society expresses a disproportionate preoccupation with death and danger, and fear of the unexpected. Firefighters were both the victims and the heroes of Ground Zero – a motif continually present in the discussions of the impending UK strikes, reminding us of both the danger of disaster, and the bravery of those sent in to deal with it.

The trouble is that emphasising the heroic role of firefighters in dealing with unexpected disaster makes for an ambivalent attitude towards the notion that they might lay down their hoses for a strike. If what passes as political support for the firefighters’ cause is really an expression of emotional sympathy based on fear of death, it is unlikely to translate into an endorsement of any action that increases people’s vulnerability to fear and fire.

So people might think the firefighters are worth it – but they might equally concur with the government’s view that strike action is unnecessary, indefensible and irresponsible. When the front page of the UK Sun clamours ‘Fire strike: We’re all in peril’, and government ministers push this message, it chimes with the mood of the times rather more effectively than the demand to pay emergency service workers more money.

This dispute is made even more confused by the response of other union leaders, who have suggested that, when the firefighters are on strike, their members might walk out on health and safety grounds. This has been presented as a cunning way of getting around Thatcherite legislation banning sympathy strikes – finding a non-political pretext of expressing support for the firefighters.

But since when did unions, in recent years, take any action that did not purport to be about health and safety? For all the warnings of a return to ‘Scargillite’ militancy, the one card that today’s unions have to play is the victim card.

Unions routinely bleat health and safety as part of calls for more regulation within the workplace – which is the one thing that they can safely expect from the government. It’s banal, non-political, and hardly the kind of stuff that threatens to bring down the Blair regime. Whatever unions think they have gained by this strategy, they have eschewed any possibility of winning political arguments, let alone political support.

The extent to which political disputes have been translated into moral wrangling over issues of safety and esteem indicates how little today’s world has in common with 1977. There are no causes to fight, or battles to win – only a circular argument about victims and victimisers, in which it is perfectly possible to be characterised as both.

What the upshot of all this will be for the firefighters is anybody’s guess. What it will mean for the public is more clear, as the government takes the opportunity to issue yet more precautionary warnings stating the obvious.

As well as the predictable advice to celebrate bonfire night when the firefighters are not on strike (durr), the government has now launched a £1.8million public fire safety campaign, involving dropping leaflets through people’s doors. The message, said fire services minister, Nick Raynsford, is simple. ‘If fire breaks out in your home, you should get out, stay out and call 999.’ Well, who would have thought of that?

Read on:

Leaving the left behind, by Michael Fitzpatrick

(1) Fire strike safety campaign launched, Guardian, 23 October 2002

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Topics Politics

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