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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 13:25 GMT
Holding firm on the picket line
On the picket line at Euston Central fire station
Brigades around the country are striking again
Dominic Bailey

The braziers are burning on the picket line again, and the firefighters are angry.

The wave of strikes which first hit the country last year is back, with no clear end in sight.

Many of those on the picket line, who are sacrificing wages to get a better deal, feel that it's a fight that should have been settled by now.

When Blair and his cronies were fighting for election, the union backed them to the hilt

Firefighter Steve Roach
Ian Murray, a Fire Brigades Union (FBU) spokesman at Dockhead Fire Station in south London said no-one wanted to be back on strike.

"We've been forced into it by the stubbornness of the government," he said.

"They don't want to talk and they have put on so many preconditions that it's difficult to negotiate.

"We were the ones who first approached ACAS. We are the ones to have called off more strikes than we've actually carried out."

Tooting horns

Public support for the striking firefighters still appears to be strong.

Horns blare as vans and cars pass the picket line.

Even in the redeveloped Dockhead area of luxury flats and apartments, the firefighters have felt the public's backing.

Some brigades have stayed at home for Tuesday's strike, rather than be forced to break the picket in the event of an emergency.

But Mr Murray says the picket is an important weapon for informing and educating the public.
Picket line in Edinburgh
Picket lines are seen as vital in getting the message across

Being on the line brings firefighters face to face with passers-by and, he says, makes them aware of the influence that negative press coverage has had on some people.

"But it doesn't take long to convince people that our strike is justified," said Mr Murray.

Financial loss

Striking, of course, raises moral dilemmas for the firefighters - they know they are putting lives at greater risk.

Striking is also hitting their families hard financially.

During the longest strike before Christmas, some firefighters lost up to 800 in pay.

But station officer Dave Brigley said the firefighters had the support of their loved ones.

"They know that we've been forced into this position," he said.

Simple treachery

At nearby Southwark Fire Station, the mood is defiant and firefighters are clear about who has betrayed them.

Firefighter Steve Roach, 52, claimed the government seemed determined to crush the FBU and any other union that wanted a fairer pay deal.
At the end of the day, are they not trying to maintain their comfortable status quo?"

Craig Foster

The government's stance - particularly as a Labour government - is regarded as simple treachery.

"When Blair and his cronies were fighting for election, the union backed them to the hilt, said Mr Roach.

His colleague Neil Whitehead, 45, said many firefighters were signing up to stop their union subscriptions contributing to the Labour party.

Many on the picket line took part in the last major strike action in 1977, unlike firefighter Lee, 20, who had not even been born then.

"My generation has never seen anything like that really," he said.

"I'm the first of many of my friends to go on strike."

But he added that it would not put him off his chosen career just yet.

'Too hard a line'

While many drivers sounded their support some members of the public had reservations about another set of strikes.

Musician Dan Bowling 39, said he was worried the firefighters were being let down by their union leaders.

"They are taking too hard a line. They are going to end up losing for their membership, the rights and privileges that they are fighting for - which is a great shame."

Marketing manager Gemma Meadland, 26, said there had to be some compromises on both sides to end the strike.

However, construction director Craig Foster, 47, asked whether the firefighters were striking for the right reasons.

"They do a dangerous job, which everyone accepts. But at the end of the day, are they not trying to maintain their comfortable status quo?"

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Lucy Atherton
"Firefighters... walked out of their stations and onto the picket lines"
  Andy Gilchrist, FBU leader
"The morale is high"
  Bernard Jenkin, shadow defence secretary
"This is now an utterly shameful strike"

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CLICKABLE GUIDE

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 VOTE RESULTS
Do you support the fire strike?

Yes
 31.09% 

No
 68.91% 

13573 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

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