In a watershed moment in the history of the FBU, the so-called “spit and polish” demonstrations marked the union’s first ever national industrial action.
In their long-running bid to regain post-war pay parity with police, firefighters in the FBU discussed taking industrial action for the first time ever. This action became known as the ‘spit and polish’ strikes or demonstrations. Those involved responded to fires and emergency calls but refused routine duties including training and domestic chores.
The action started initially as unofficial on 16 and 17 October and extended beyond 19 October following the suspension of FBU members in Southend. A meeting of the National Joint Council in 30 October failed to resolve the union’s claims. As a result, the FBU called officially for ‘spit and polish’ action to take place on 19 and 20 November 1951.
The dispute emerged as the fire service reverted to local council control after the war. Many local authorities argued that they had no money to support levels of pay enjoyed by firefighters during the war. However, as Victor Bailey writes in Forged In Fire: The History of the Fire Brigades Union:
“There seems little doubt, too, that the fire authorities were out to clip the wings of a union which had significantly increased its power and influence during the war.”
In a bid to crush the demonstrations, fire authorities responded by sacking, demoting, disciplining or fining firefighters. However this unjust reaction only served to strengthen the resolve of the firefighters and helped to mobilise support from the wider labour and trade union movement.
In a 1951 issue of The Firefighter these “secret instructions” to fire authorities came into the possession of the union, which circulated them to all delegates before the demonstration started. “They proved valuable ammunition for the men, who were now prepared for what the authorities had in store,” the editorial said, noting that “many councils hesitated and other ignored the recommendations” and that in spite of the intimidation the action was solidly supported by 95% of the union.
Even some police officers refused to intervene when they were called to eject suspended firefighters who refused to leave fire stations. A key turning point was a prompted by another fire service tragedy. In a fire at Broad Street goods depot in London, a wall collapsed, killing three firefighters. They were all FBU members who had taken part in the ‘spit and polish’ strikes. They were due to appear before a disciplinary committee. The London County Council, rapidly made arrangements to drop the charges against other FBU members.
By Christmas, local fire authorities had lost the contest and were so poorly viewed by the press and public that many others decided to withdraw all charges against firefighters, repay all fines and reinstate those who had been demoted. The lasting consequences of the spit and polish demonstrations was a union whose members developed greater industrial unity as well as political and industrial awareness.