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EDITIONS
Monday, 16 December, 2002, 18:45 GMT
Fire strike's embers burn on
Firefighters on the picket line
The picket lines have gone - but for how long?

Groups of pickets gather round a brazier, workers demanding more pay march to Hyde Park, the deputy prime minister holds crisis talks with a union leader.

Scenes from the 1960s?

No, this was 2002, when the firefighters took on the government in the biggest industrial clash for more than a decade.

The rumblings began back in the spring as the Fire Brigades Union launched its campaign for a rise in the basic salary from 21,531 to 30,000.

Fire Brigades Union leader Andy Gilchrist
Andy Gilchrist's fighting talk became increasingly political
Andy Gilchrist, the young and relatively inexperienced general secretary of the FBU, was leading this campaign.

But 55,000 firefighters, whose frustrations had built up over years in which they felt the existing pay formula had let them slip behind other workers, stood behind him.

On the other side, local authority employers, deeply resentful at what they saw as a militant union resisting all efforts to modernise the fire service.

Add in a government determined not to fund what it saw as an inflationary pay claim or lose out in a trial of strength with the unions, and the result was a very inflammable mixture.

The employers offered a 4% rise, with anything more coming only from Sir George Bain's independent review set up by the government.

The firefighters refused to have anything to do with the Bain Review and voted by almost nine to one for strikes.

John Prescott took personal charge of peacemaking, and despite what was described as "industrial language" at several meetings between the deputy prime minister and Andy Gilchrist, the FBU leader thought he was making progress.

A Green Goddess
Ageing Green Goddesses were brought back into service
But when the Bain review released an interim report recommending an 11% rise over two years, tied to sweeping changes in working practices, the union decided it was time to walk, not talk.

The first national fire strike in 25 years meant the armed forces had to take over.

Equipped with ageing Green Goddess fire-engines the troops responded to emergency calls, hesitantly at first, then with growing confidence.

After the first 48-hour strike, another frenzied round of talks. This time an all-night session appeared to have produced agreement on a two-year 16% deal.

Then John Prescott intervened, attacking both the union and the employers for signing what he described as a bouncing cheque which they expected the government to fund.

Bruising battle

As its members walked out on an eight-day strike the union believed it now occupied the moral high ground. But over the next week the government fought back.

It used the apparent success of the troops in replacing the firefighters as a weapon against the union.

Ministers said the forces had coped well with limited resources, although the union insisted they had not answered all calls and had failed to tackle fires as effectively as firefighters.

As the eight-day strike ended, both sides appeared set on a long, bruising battle.

Two soldiers fight a fire
The armed forces were highly praised for their firefighting work
Andy Gilchrist upped the stakes with a speech in which he said he would work to replace New Labour with Real Labour.

Then, suddenly, the union stepped back from the brink.

It announced that it was suspending its next strike to go into talks at the conciliation service Acas.

Mr Gilchrist had been accused of leading his members into a burning building without checking the exits - now he appeared to be looking for a way out.

But as 2002 ends, this battle may still have some life in it. The employers are now framing a revised pay offer, based on the final recommendations of the Bain Review.

They and the government are determined to force more modernisation on the fire service.

The union says the changes being demanded are dangerous and it has more strikes pencilled in for the end of January if the talks fail.

The question now is whether the firefighters really have the stomach to return to the picket-lines.


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