The second national strike of firefighters in the union’s history was centred, as before, around the issue of pay.
The dispute during the winter of 2002/03 was interspersed with lengthy negotiations with the new Labour government that were designed to derail the strikers, who were seeking a 40% pay increase to address years of decline in their wages and a more skilled and productive fire service.
The pay increase firefighters were seeking would have raised their average wage to £30,000 and it was a fight for all sectors of the service from retained and control staff to station based staff and officers. There was widespread support for the strike not just from FBU members but also from the public, who remembered the heroic work of U.S. firefighters so recently demonstrated in the events of 9/11.
The claim was agreed by delegates at conference in May followed by a summer of campaigning during which employers came back with a much reduced offer of a 4% pay rise with strings attached. The union rejected this within days, paving the way for the strikes that began on 12 November.
In a bid to stave off the strikes the government commissioned a review into the fire service, the Bain Inquiry, that recommended an 11% pay rise linked to a whole package of changes to conditions of service and negotiating arrangements. This only served to anger the FBU further, and it argued that the review’s true intention was to scupper talks with employers.
Firefighters began their 48-hour picket outside fire stations at 6pm. As in the 1977 strike, troops driving Green Goddesses were forced to attend hundreds of call-outs within hours of the strike, justifying the prophetic words of South Yorkshire delegate Paul Matthewman at conference:
“If you are not prepared to pay us, get your Green Goddesses ready because you are going to need them!”