The first ever national strike undertaken by firefighters, lasted nine weeks from November 1977 to January 1978.
Police had received a substantial pay rise while firefighters had seen years of falling real wages, creating a low pay industry. Many firefighters had to resort to claiming state benefits. The strike, backed overwhelmingly by the FBU’s 30,000 strong membership, demanded a 30% pay rise to address the fact that they had been surviving on so little.
Inflation in 1977 was running at a huge 16% and had been as high as 25% two years earlier. However, the government had a public sector pay ceiling of 10%. The FBU wanted to launch a public campaign against it, which was narrowly defeated at the TUC general council. Eventually firefighters settled for a 10% rise that took the average salary from £3,700 to just over £4,000.
During the strike the armed forces were drafted in to fight fires, using the military’s fleet of 1950s ‘Green Goddess’ fire engines. There were reports of striking firefighters occasionally tackling fires themselves – not to strike-break but to save lives, as the army had received little training in firefighting.
The strike had widespread support from the public, who donated generously to the strike fund in the run-up to Christmas as firefighters were receiving no strike pay. Iconic punk band the Sex Pistols even held a benefit concert for the children of “striking firefighters, laid-off workers and one-parent families “on Christmas Day.
The strike led to a pay formula that helped to increase wages for the next 25 years. The formula ensured that the wages of firefighters kept in line with those the top 25% of male manual workers. There was not another national strike for 25 years until, in 2002, again over concerns over pay.