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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
Fire union to hold strike ballot
Firefighters were on strike over pay
Firefighters say bosses failed to honour a pay deal
Firefighters in Greater Manchester have decided to hold a ballot on strike action as a dispute over the national pay deal continues.

The row concerns training of firefighters on new equipment during overnight "stand down" time.

The Fire Brigades Union said Manchester crews had agreed to vote on "discontinuous strike action," which could occur in as soon as three weeks.

Meanwhile, the Fire Brigades Union and employers will hold talks on Monday.

The employers have offered proposals to resolve the issue, including newly worded reassurances about night shift conditions.

Deadline

Greater Manchester firefighters had given local bosses a deadline of 1600 BST on Friday to meet their demands or see a ballot of the 2,000 union members held.

The deadline was ignored by Manchester's chief fire officer Barry Dixon who said the demands were "unreasonable".

The whole dispute centres around firefighters saying employers failed to honour the deal - including staged pay rises - that ended the 2003 pay dispute.

It is clear that these talks will take place in an atmosphere of mistrust
FBU leader Andy Gilchrist

BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones told News 24 the meeting did not represent a climb-down on either side.

"It seems that something is moving," he said.

But the union said on Friday it was "baffled" by what it called the "strange behaviour" of the employers.

FBU officials claim bosses had simply re-hashed old wording in their proposals.

General secretary Andy Gilchrist said: "They seem intent on reneging on the agreement struck last year.

"It is clear that these talks will take place in an atmosphere of mistrust."

The chairwoman of the employers' side, Christina Jebb, said she was "hopeful" about Monday's meeting and "very pleased that the union has accepted the invitation to meet".

On Friday, firefighters in Scotland agreed to back their union's call for a ballot.

John McDonald, the FBU Scottish executive council member, branded the position taken by the employers as "ludicrous", adding that firefighters were still waiting for the pay increase promised in November 2003.

Firefighters sent home

More firefighters in the Greater Manchester region were suspended overnight for refusing to give undertakings they would operate new anti-terrorist decontamination equipment.

UNION DEMANDS
1. All working practices introduced since June 2003 be withdrawn
2. All new equipment withdrawn, except agreed replacements/updates
3. Withdrawal of defibrillators and the Incident Response Unit
4. Community fire safety work to be by voluntary consent only
5. Immediate discontinuation of training for equipment or work within 1 to 4
6. Recognition that any new working practices or equipment requires agreement with FBU
7. Cease policy of punishing members by stoppage of pay and discharge home
8. Immediate return on full pay for all members and assurance they will not be victimised

The total number sent home without pay is now more than 80, from four stations.

Mr Dixon said it was important to "keep the situation as calm as we can".

"I remain committed to be available any time of the day or night [for talks with the FBU] to try and bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion."

He emphasised that the action was illegal and unofficial and added there was "never a need for this to occur in Greater Manchester".

Union leaders called for the withdrawal of new working practices and equipment until a national agreement was reached.

Mr Dixon said the union's list of eight requirements "gave no room for manoeuvre".

"It's actually widened the whole issue," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He accused local union officials of "ramping up" the issues, when they could have dealt with their concerns formally at the union's recalled conference in June.

The employers' proposals are said to provide firefighters working long night shifts with reasonable rest periods when they are not required to undertake duties.

Bosses want firefighters to carry out training, inspections and other duties at night rather than sleep for part of their shift.

Ms Jebb said once agreement had been reached the stalled 3.5% pay rise, agreed last year, would be paid and backdated to November 2003.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"In Manchester the division seems to be widening"



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