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EDITIONS
Friday, 15 November, 2002, 06:05 GMT
Fire dispute brings back painful memories
Eric Brandon at Fulwell Fire Station in the 1970s
Eric Brandon spent 26 years in the fire service

When Eric Brandon watched television pictures of firefighters taking strike action he found himself shedding a few tears.

The images of picket lines, placards and braziers took him back a quarter of a century to a dispute that now looks uncannily familiar.

On 14 November 1977, firefighters across the United Kingdom walked out in support of a 30% pay claim.

Eric was a fireman at Fulwell Fire Station in Sunderland.


I was crying when the firefighters came out...I know what the lads are going through

Eric Brandon
1977 striker

He spent the next nine weeks on the picket line, before the strike crumbled and the firefighters went back to work.

"Everybody was skint, and just wanted to call it a day," Eric recalls.

"I think the same thing is going to happen this time. The government is not going to back down. Who can give in to a demand for a 40% rise?

"I think there may be a compromise, based on changes to the fire service, but in the end they will have to go back."

Low pay

Eric became a fireman in 1972, after leaving the Royal Navy, having served on board aircraft carriers with the Fleet Air Arm.

Soldier using fire hose
Then, as now, troops were called in to fight fires
He found many similarities in the way the fire service was run, and immediately felt at home.

"The regulations, the marching, the salute... it was very much like the Navy tradition," he says.

"I was used to working with men in the Navy, and I liked the comradeship of the fire brigade, even though the money was terrible.

"I look a pay cut of about 20 a week when I became a fireman."

Depression

So when the strike was called, Eric joined his friends on the picket line. But it was not an easy decision.

"It was the most depressing day of my life," he says.


It is all to do with bargaining, and it has gone wrong for them, as it did for us

Eric Brandon

"I hated having to walk out. We were trained to serve the public, but when we went on strike, we just couldn't do that any more.

"After we came out, I went round to all the houses in the area, handing out government leaflets advising people on the precautions they should take, like not lighting candles.

"The public was very sympathetic in 1977, but the dispute left a lot of bad feeling, especially about the police.

"They were earning a fortune in overtime, and they used to wave their pay slips at us."

Tears

After nine weeks without pay, the firefighters reluctantly abandoned their strike.

Soliders and Green Goddesses
The army took over firefighting for nine weeks
They went back to work for the same money they had been offered when they walked out, although the dispute did result in the adoption of a new pay formula.

"It meant that we did quite well over the next couple of years," says Eric.

"But I shed some tears when we went back, and I vowed that I was going to better myself."

Eric received a payment of 150 for returning to work, and bought a van.

In his spare time, he began a loft insulation business. Today he has a fleet of twenty vans, and employs nearly fifty people.

So for him, the strike of 1977 did have a positive outcome, although it left a legacy of bitterness that was to last years.

"I have mixed emotions about it now," he said.

"It was the worst time of my life, but it made me get off my backside."

Gamble

Eric Brandon spent 26 years in the fire service before he finally retired, four years ago.

Firefighters at strike rally
Eric thinks today's strikers are making a mistake
His advice to the strikers of 2002, based on his own experience, is to enter into negotiations as soon as possible to resolve the dispute.

"It is all to do with bargaining, and it has gone wrong for them, as it did for us," he says.

"They were hoping for 40%, but would probably have settled for 20%. It was a gamble that didn't pay off.

"It is a very sad time for all firefighters. I was crying again when they came out yesterday.

"I know what the lads are going through. They were forced to do it, partly by the union but also by circumstances.

"Now everyone should get back round the table and keep talking. It is the only way to settle anything."


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15 Nov 02 | Politics
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