Matt Wrack’s Blog

Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary

Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary

“Which side are you on?” three versions and more

There are various versions of the song.
If you are of my generation you may well know Billy Bragg’s track which first appeared on the EP Between the wars. (Vinyl EPs – those were the days!) The song is a development of an older one written by a woman called Florence Reece who grew up in a coal mining family in Tennessee. She was recorded speaking about her life in a fantastic film about a miners’ strike, Harlan County USA. You can read about it here or you can watch it in full on YouTube, although that’s not the best format for watching a feature length production.

No doubt, if she worked in a UK fire service today, Mrs. Reece would be under investigation for what she says on this clip.

The song was then popularised by Pete Seeger in various versions of which this is one.

Music, including picket line music evolves and Billy Bragg wrote a new version.

There is an article on his website discussing the evolution of the song. One thing which needs highlighting today is that the original versions ignore the role of women – which is pretty poor considering it was written by Florence Reece! Watch Harlan County USA to see the key role by women in that struggle, a role replicated in the 84/85 UK miners strike. In our struggles today I hope that the role of women trades unionist are fully acknowledged – but it takes a struggle.

Anyway, enjoy: struggle and solidarity.
More to follow….


Picket lines songs and Union songs

Struggle – and songs

The end of year is normally a time for all sorts of fun; for light hearted quizzes and competition. This year for FBU members and their families there is a very bleak side. We are still in the middle of a bitter fight to try to defend our pension rights and protect conditions for the future. Like other public servants, we also face the worst cuts and closure programme in our history.
But our response is not to sit back and accept it. It is to organise and fight back. We have presented arguments – whether on pensions or on cuts – which should be enough in any intelligent and civilised society to force a change of direction. Regrettably, the government does not listen. Or rather, it chooses to ignore the argument and the evidence. So we are forced into fighting back in other ways. Sadly we will be on strike again over the festive period.

We are part of a much bigger movement. A movement here in the UK and across the world: the labour movement. Workers have always had to organise and fight back in order to make any progress. Nothing has ever been handed on a plate. Previous generations of firefighters organised and fought for the pay, conditions – and pensions – we enjoy today. Previous generations of working people fought for other things; the right to sick pay, the right to organise, the right to vote, equally pay for women and many, many other gains which were achieved through hard work and campaigning.
There has always been a cultural side to this movement. If you fight side by side you will also laugh side by side and occasionally sing side by side. So over the next few days I will highlight some of the songs from unions, strikes and picket lines that I am familiar with.

Please feel free to suggest others – via Twitter is probably best: @MattWrack

Shortlist and New Year Number One

You may not like all the music – indeed you may not like any of it. But hopefully it can provide a small an insight into a different aspect of the history of our movement. We will identify a shortlist – and suitable haphazard and chaotic fashion suggested by Twitter and other social media. We can then find your/our/my favourite. Perhaps some of you can even get your guitars or other instruments out – and sing on the picket line.

FBU Black Ribbon badge: Honour our dead – fight for the living

On Tuesday this coming week, many of us will attend the funeral of Brother Stephen Hunt in Bury. I will be wearing my FBU black ribbon badge in honour of Stephen and in memory of our other colleagues who have died in the line of duty.

We introduced the ribbon badge a few years ago after we became increasingly concerned at what appeared to be a sharp rise in the number of deaths of firefighters at work, at fires and at other emergency incidents. As a result of this concern we commissioned research on the subject and published a report (In the Line of Duty). This remains the most detailed and up to date report on UK firefighter fatalities.

We did this because we wanted to ensure that the lessons of such tragedies are learned and that the same mistakes are not made again. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that is the case. The issues we raised within the fire and rescue service in 2008 are still there today. The investigation of recent firefighter deaths reveal that lessons have not been learned or applied across our service. It therefore angers me when I hear people talking complacently about improved safety in the fire and rescue service; usually people who have not bothered to do the slightest bit of research or reading.

When such tragedies happen the entire fire service is shocked. We pull together to try to look after the bereaved families and the other people affected by the incident. But all such tragedies leave deep scars which don’t just go away once the funeral is over. The FBU is still fighting for compensation for bereaved families more than six years after one such incident – and fighting against the resistance of the employer. In other cases we have identified that steps recommended following previous deaths have simply not been adopted or implemented across the board. Tragically and disgracefully, central government (at least in England) says this has little or nothing to do with them. It’s all down to local arrangements and the local plans of the fire and rescue authority, apparently. What they are incapable of answering is how the service improves if there are no mechanisms to ensure it does and no adequate monitoring or inspection requirements.

These are matters which were raised again at our conference in Blackpool in May this year, two months before Stephen Hunt was tragically killed carrying out his duties. We are currently arranging follow up research building on what we did in 2008 to ensure we can carry on fighting for the safety of firefighters and for justice for their families. This is a struggle which is never easy and never short.

So on Tuesday, whether you can be at the funeral in Bury or not, wear your FBU black ribbon badge. Your brigade officials should have them. Wear it in honour of Stephen and in solidarity with his family, friends and colleagues. Wear it in memory of our other brothers and sisters killed in the line of duty – here and across the world.

Remember the dead; fight for the living

No threat of capability? Who are they trying to kid?

London Fire Brigade advice to employees on pensions

The FBU is currently balloting members over pensions.

We expect a bit of a war of words at such a time. The governments(s) have started responding. So have various Chief Officers and other principal managers. One theme of these responses is that the FBU is overstating the case on capability. There is no real threat of mass dismissals. There is nothing to worry about. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

In the London Fire Brigade the head of Human Resources, James Dalgleish, has posted some comments to this affect on the blog of the Commissioner, Ron Dobson. Mr Dalgleish says, among other things,
“No one knows what will happen in nine years time, but management don’t expect to see sudden increases in capability dismissals and there is no evidence to suggest that that will be the case.” (26 July)

So let’s look at this a little more closely. Is it true that there is no such evidence?

They’ve got form for it

Mr Dalgleish is trying to suggest that: The London Fire Brigade, like other fire services, is a caring employer. They would not put employees in such a position, would they? Well they have already tried it – but want us all to forget the harsh reality.

The London Fire Brigade infamously stopped the pensions of three London firefighters in 2007. The three firefighters had already been retired (by decision of the LFB) but the government then changed the rules for ill-health retirements. The London Fire Brigade stopped the three pensions, on the basis that the three no longer qualified for an ill-health pension. But the LFB also refused to re-employ the three, saying that they were no jobs for them. They were placed in the position of having NO JOB and NO PENSION.

What brought this to an end? Did the Commissioner step and say it was unfair? Did government take urgent action to address this injustice? Did the London HR department (led by a certain Mr. James Dalgleish) see the error of their ways and reinstate the pensions? No, none of these things happened. Instead, the FBU had to fight a long campaign, politically and legally until we eventually won an appeal in court (after initially losing the case). The pensions were restored. No thanks whatsoever to LFEPA. No thanks to the commissioner. No thanks to Mr. Dalgleish. No, the pensions were restored purely as a result of legal action taken on behalf of FBU members by – the FBU.

They wouldn’t put people in the position of No Job and No Pension would they? Pull the other one, James.

The employers warned that capability dismissals would rise if the pension changes were made

We also find that they are not being entirely straight about the long running discussions on pensions. These have included tripartite meetings between the FBU, CLG officials and representatives of the fire and rescue service employers. During the course of these, the FBU argued that the increase in pension age would lead to a consequential increase in ill-health retirements. As people got older, they would be unable to carry out their role and more would need to be retired on health grounds.

Oh no, said the employers. This would not be the most likely outcome. If fitness declined, that would not constitute the basis for retirement since declining fitness should not be classified as ill-health. Such people would not meet the requirements of the pension scheme and would not be entitled to a pension. No, anybody so affected would be more likely to face dismissal under capability and we would be likely to see a significant increase in such dismissals as a result of the changes.

Let us be absolutely clear here.

It was the fire and rescue service employers’ representatives who first stated, very clearly, that the increase in normal pension age to 60 would lead to an increase in capability dismissals in the fire and rescue service. To claim otherwise now is…. well you can make your own mind up about that.

And which fire service provided the lead advisor for the employers throughout these discussions? We’ll leave you to guess.

Firefighters needs the facts on pensions

As you might expect on a subject such as pensions, there are a lot of facts and figures being fired around. But one emerged this week that was particularly telling. After a phone-in on pensions with Fire Minister Brandon Lewis, a poll of its 130 listeners indicated 72% had been given no better understanding of the subject than when they’d started.

The world’s changing very fast, of course, and perhaps the minister should be congratulated on attempting to embrace new technology, despite the frustrations of his audience. But whatever they pull out of the toy box in an effort to improve communication, the government simply cannot overcome the fact that after two years of negotiations, firefighters have still not been told many of the basic details of their pension proposals.

Lewis’ letter earlier in the week had been right to say that firefighters need the full facts before they made any decision over strike action. But after years of frustrating negotiations – and a rather unsuccessful internet phone-in – we still don’t know how much people would have to contribute or what would happen to them if they couldn’t maintain operational fitness until the age 60. These are crucial issues to firefighters – and to public safety.

As fun as Twitter and phone-ins are, they are no substitute for real talks. The government must stop issuing incomplete and misleading information and come back to the negotiating table until we find a workable pension scheme that takes into account the occupational requirements of the job.

FBU national school: Wortley Hall and Woody Guthrie

Last week saw the FBU annual national school take place at Wortley Hall near Sheffield. The FBU has a very long association with Wortley going back to the 1950s when the venue was bought with the aim of developing it as a centre for trade unions and working people. A huge amount of work has been done since then and the place is certainly very different to the venue when I first attended in the mid-1980s – its warmer and you have your own shower for a start!

Our national school covers a huge range of issues. We examine how the fire service fits into wider society and in turn how our terms and conditions are affected by much wider influences. Some very interesting debates developed about the state of the economy and the role of the banking sector.
The Thursday evening saw some entertainment with a political slant as we invited Will Kaufman to perform his one man show about Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a songwriter, activist, hobo and many other things in the USA of the great depression. Many of the themes addressed by Woody Guthrie in his lyrics are remarkably relevant today.

Thanks to all the speakers and tutors at the school and particularly to all the students from all parts of the FBU.

Here is a cover of a Guthrie song by Ry Cooder from 1973.

FBU anti cuts adverts spark debate

The FBU launched a series of adverts in the press last Monday in the run up to our lobby of Parliament on Wednesday. It caused quite a stir. The (English) Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) isssued a press comment cricising us and a number of MPs raised objections. It even prompted this article in the Daily Telagraph. I suspect you know you’re doing something right when such people get so angry.

FBU members on the other hand, were very pleased to see such a sharp answer to the cuts in our service. Thanks to all those who attended the rally and lobby on Wednesday. Thanks also to our various speakers. Here is what I had to say. FBU westminster rally november 2012

FBU lobby against the cuts

This Wednesday will see FBU members from around the UK attend a lobby of Parliament in Westminster to argue against cuts in the fire service. This is a targetted lobby of delegates from each brigade committee – but all FBU members are asked to follow this up by contacting your local MP. This can be done by email, in writing or face to face.
The union’s case against further cuts can be found here.

West Yorkshire rally

Having bought myself an i-pad, I am hoping to be able to update the blog a bit quicker than in the past. I have not yet quite mastered putting pics in the blog from the i-pad so there may be some delays in that. But because its easier to carry I can draft posts much quicker.
Am writing this on the train back from Leeds. The West Yorkshire brigade committee called a march and rally against the proposed cuts in the West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. You can read more about the proposed cuts here.
We had a lively march led by FBU members carrying a coffin to symbolise the threat to the service. We were accompanied by the FBU campaign fire engine which is slowly working its way back to London having been on tour, including a visit to the Scottish TUC demonstration in Glasgow.
Well done to all the local members who turned out and thanks to the friends and family members who came along – as well as the campaigners and members of other unions who came along to support.
I am sure this will just the the latest of many marches and rallies as FBU members get organised to oppose the cuts.
Thanks to the West Yorkshire officials and brigade committee for organising this.

Dean Bird: A retirement do to remember

I am just travelling to Grantham for an Executive Council meeting having attended a retirement function for London member Brother Dean Bird – someone I have known for many, many years.
Dean has been a long standing Station Officer in London – at Bethnal Green and more recently at Holloway. He has also been an extremely loyal FBU member throughout his 32 years service. Dean knew his trade – his profession – inside out, working at some very busy fire stations. But he also understood the real meaning of team work. As a station officer he was in charge of his watch but he was also part of a team. His commitment to the FBU massively influenced how he worked throughout his time in the service. Some people are willing to surrender anything for the price of promotion – not Dean. He knew that there are sometimes things more important – like being true to yourself and sticking to your principles. He did that. He was – is – a fine example of a fire service officer and a fine example of an FBU member. It was an honour to be able to attend and speak at his retirement function – FBU members only.

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