Time to end the pay freeze


Firefighters’ pay must be a central priority for a union like the FBU. Getting decent wages for our members, for the work they do and for the benefits they deliver to our communities, is a vital part of the FBU’s mission.

Yet firefighters – along with more than five million other public sector workers, including nurses, midwives, civil servants and teachers – have been the hardest hit by the Westminster govern­ment’s austerity agenda.

Public sector workers have been subjected to the longest period of pay restraint in living memory. In 2010-11, the Westminster government imposed a two-year pay freeze on firefighters, followed ever since by a 1% pay cap on public sector pay.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: “This is the hardest period this union has faced since the 1930s for making progress on pay.

“The economic downturn that began a decade ago has hammered working people, who have suffered lower pay, attacks on their pensions and seen their public services slashed.

“Austerity has meant working people paying for a crisis they did not cause.”

All public sector employers have been required to adhere to the pay cap, either through conditions placed on negotiations between employers and unions or through instructions to pay review bodies. The FBU negotiates with fire service employers on pay at the National Joint Council (NJC), where the employers have stuck doggedly to these limits.

Six years of pay restraint have left the average public sector worker earning thousands of pounds less than they would have been if pay had kept up with inflation (see Table 1).


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Table 1

The TUC estimates that, if firefighters’ pay had kept pace with inflation over these years, then fire­fighters would be earning £2,000 a year more, even using the official government measure of inflation, the consumer prices index (CPI).

MORE PAIN

The pattern of real-terms cuts in pay for public sector workers is set to intensify over the next four years under existing government pay policy, with public sector wage growth held at 1% and inflation forecasted to reach 2-3%.

In the 2015 summer budget, the government announced that it would “fund public sector workforces for a pay award of 1% for four years from 2016-17”. Firefighters and other public sector workers face a real-terms pay cut if pay is capped at 1% until 2020-21 and inflation rises, as the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts. Firefighters could lose £1,500 more on top of past losses (see Table 2).


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Table 2

All public sector workers have bills to pay. Firefighters have already been hit hard. If the Westminster government gets its way, then there’s worse to come.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, said in February: “The govern­ment’s announced 1% limit on annual pay increases for a further four years from 2016-17 is … expected to reduce wages in the public sector to their lowest level relative to private sector wages since at least the 1990s.

“This could result in difficulties for public sector employers trying to recruit, retain and motivate high quality workers, and raises the possibility of (further) industrial relations issues.”

The FBU’s response is to campaign for an end to the pay cap. The union’s delegation to the TUC congress last year strongly supported a motion for the trade union movement to take action to break the pay freeze.

Andy Noble, FBU treasurer, told the gathering: “Congress, the trades union movement cannot allow members to be exploited in this way.

“Our members are all doing more work, more productively than ever before. We simply cannot accept this attack on our members’ living standards.

“They [the Tory government] have also lost the excuse of a crisis. They now want to cut public spending simply so they can give their friends in the City more tax cuts. We cannot accept this.”

The FBU will submit a substantial pay claim to the NJC pay negotiations this spring, backed by a wide range of evidence.

The union is not going to stand by and watch its members continue to struggle to pay bills, while the prospect of making a decent living gets more and more out of reach.

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