UK: There’s a feeling that we’re not valued at all

November 12, 2002

On blue watch, officers are angry at the ‘derisory’ offer

Owen Bowcott
Tuesday November 12, 2002
The Guardian

If the Tower of London catches fire tomorrow evening the engines of Whitechapel fire station should be the first on the scene.

But yesterday’s pay offer by the Bain review made it more likely that the army’s lumbering green goddesses will be sent out instead to save the nation’s heritage.

News of the 11% rise, spread over two years, was greeted with profound disappointment by members of blue watch at the station on the Commercial Road in the East End of London.

The increase of 4% this year followed by 7% next year was dismissed by firefighters variously as “unacceptable” and “derisory”.

Of the 13-strong watch, only two can afford to live in the Greater London area. Most commute in from Essex, Suffolk or Sussex. Several have second jobs to make ends meet.

The station, whose engines were the first to arrive at St Mary’s Axe Church in the City in the aftermath of the IRA’s bomb attack in the early 90s, is responsible for the safety of several stations on the Docklands Light Railway, several more on the underground and for the lives of hundreds of thousands of office workers.

“I don’t like the way it’s been portrayed as though it’s an 11% lump sum,” said Mick Wilson, 49, the station officer in charge of blue watch. After 22 years of service he earns £29,000 a year plus £3,000 extra for London weighting.

“This 4% has been on the table right from the start. There is nothing for our good will in suspending the strikes so far. They have left us no option but to walk out.

“There’s a feeling we’re not valued at all. We have asked our chief officer to put a figure on how much we are worth. All he keeps saying is I think you are worth more than we are paying you now. It would be very nice if just one senior officer had fought our corner and had forgotten about his knighthood and actually said yes I think you are worth it. [The 40% demanded by the Fire Brigades’ Union].

“When the spin doctors get round to it they will paint us as the bad guys when people start dying and they say we wouldn’t do the job. They should just ask if we are really worth it.

“Yes, some people on the watch have second jobs to pay the bills. But that’s because they are on the breadline, because they need the money. There are ministers in parliament who have second jobs too, but they’re more often directors of companies.”

Jim McPartland, 37, who has been in the service for seven and a half years, said: “Some people claim we have launched this strike hoping to exploit sympathy for firefighters after September 11, but that’s not the case at all. As a qualified fireman you are paid just over £21,500 after four years training. The majority of the watch is on that type of money.

“With council taxes going up and the congestion charges coming in for London – it will cost us £5 a day if we drive in – a four per cent rise will be swallowed up almost immediately. The cost of living is going up but our wages are coming down.

“There was great excitement that when New Labour came in they would do this and that but now it seems to be ‘we will sort you out when we get round to it’.

“The green goddesses are being transported around the country on privately owned low loaders. I saw a convoy of four of them on the A12 at Ipswich recently. If there’s money for that then maybe it could be better spent sorting out a pay deal.

“I would have thought Mr Blair and his war cabinet would be sitting down and having a hard think about how you juggle resources now. We have heard about certain battalions that should be ready for fire cover. If they go to Iraq they will leave that cover drastically reduced.”

“I was born and bred in London,” said Scott Fitzearle, 26, who has been with the fire brigade for four and a half years. “But there is no way I can afford property anymore and I have had to move to Essex. There was another firefighter in this station at one point who commuted in every week from Weymouth.”

Colin Lynch, 36, a firefighter with eight years service, said: “I’m going to be working during the day at my second job teaching first aid when the strike starts and on picket duty in the evening.

“I’m on my annual leave but I’m using it to teach the police authority’s new community support officers.

“They will only have three weeks training whereas the average firefighter receives 18 weeks before he is qualified, yet they earn more than I do. How can the government tell us that there is no money to pay us when they are prepared to pay people more who have much less training.”



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