By 1918, firefighters had been frustrated for some time that they did not have a union exclusively representing their interests.
From the early 1900s the Municipal Employees’ Association, which represented other public sector workers, had a 500-strong firefighter branch. The entire branch later transferred to the rival National Union of Corporation Workers (NUCW), which also represented other public sector workers, and grew to represent more than 1,000 firefighters. However, the strength of both these branches, which were entirely made up of London firefighters, was weakened as their issues faced fierce opposition from both fire chiefs and local authorities.
So, inspired by the police strike of August 1918, in which officers fought government attempts to disallow them a union and the right to strike, firefighters thought it was time they too had their own union, in which they could expand and fight more robustly for better pay and conditions. They were aware that, while the police strike failed to persuade the government to recognise their union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO), it did lead to increased pay, improved conditions and a better pension deal for police.
The NUCW firefighters’ branch secretary, Jim Bradley, therefore decided to initiate setting up a union for firefighters. He wrote to the Ministry of Labour asking for recognition of a firefighters’ union and secretly balloted members for strike action if his request was ignored. The government resisted but negotiation led to a representative board for London firefighters.
What sounds like a small concession from the government proved to be crucial in the setting up, of the Firemen’s Trade Union. The rule book published the following year records the foundation date as being 1 October 1918. This broke away from the NUCW as a union in its own right and George Gamble was elected its first general secretary. Bradley himself followed as general secretary of the union from 1922 until his death in 1929.