Believing their worst nightmares about the ConDem government’s cuts agenda were coming true, firefighters in England and Wales began strike action against attacks on their pensions.
The government wanted to introduce a new pension scheme for serving firefighters and new starters, with some protection for serving firefighters based on their age. Firefighters would have to work longer, the retirement age being raised from 55 to 60; to pay more into their pensions; and – by the government changing the pensions uprating mechanism in relation to inflation from one using RPI to the lower CPI – to receive less when they retired.
The FBU gathered significant evidence proving that large numbers of firefighters would be unable to maintain the required fire & rescue service fitness levels at age 60. There was a real fear that firefighters would be dismissed as they got older. Understandably angered, the FBU balloted for strike action, which was supported by almost 80% of the union.
Thousands of firefighters took part in a four-hour strike against the pensions that they labelled “unworkable, unsafe and unfair” – the first strike of many. The FBU argued that the government was ignoring the fact that firefighting is a physical occupation and that it was “ludicrous” to expect frontline firefighters in their late 50s to fight fires and rescue families.
The widely publicised dispute also had public and TUC backing. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, who joined a firefighters’ picket line in Brighton, said:
“There won’t be many members of the public who would feel confident about being rescued from a serious fire if the only route out of the inferno was down a ladder on the back of a firefighter who was about to turn 60.”
As the dispute intensified, with the government failing to guarantee that firefighters would not be left with “no job, no pensions”, the initial strike soon led to more walkouts in November and beyond.
In later evidence the union, which challenged the government’s imposed plans in court, accused the scheme of being discriminatory towards younger people, women and ethnic minorities, who make up a larger proportion of the under-45 workforce.