Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Ugly scenes as fire strike escalates

There is growing resentment towards striking firefighters as bonfire night approaches with violence being reported. There have been a series of negative reports in newspapers and there are signs that anger is growing not only from members of the public but amongst the ranks of firefighters themselves.

Firefighters Ian Lehair and Tamer Ozdemir were injured in collisions with two fire vehicles during protests in south London over planned 12 hour shifts. Ozdemir reportedly screamed out in pain as he was thrown over the windscreen of a car being driven by strike-breaking fire crews outside Croydon Fire Station. Chris Young, the station manager who is believed to have been in the car at the time of the collision, was arrested but it is not clear whether he was driving at the time [FBU].

Lehair was hit by a fire engine returning to Southwark fire station on Monday night and was taken to hospital with suspected broken ribs. A second man was arrested over the collision. According to reports firefighters in Croydon began banging on the side of fire engines entering the station at around 15.20 on Monday while shouting "scabs" and "traitors" at strike-breakers crossing the picket line.

The incidents on Monday were not the first signs of frustration and anger. During an earlier walk-out on the 23rd October strike-breaking firefighters were met by "intimidation and harassment" according to London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Footage on YouTube [1/2] showed demonstrators surrounding a fire engine as it returned to Southwark Bridge Road station [BBC]. The angry scenes seen outside some fire stations has resulted in police being drafted in to protect strike-breakers [YouTube].

The strike action in London stems from a dispute about new working contracts and if not resolved will involve thousands of firefighters striking on Bonfire Night. Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said the changes were unacceptable to those already working antisocial shifts and would not allow firefighters to see enough of their families.

However many tabloid newspapers have slammed such claims and highlighted rampant moonlighting amongst firefighters. The Mail on Sunday carried out investigations and revealed that up to a third of the striking firefighters have second jobs. According to the report almost 2,000 of London's 5,900 firefighters also work in jobs including accountants, undertakers, actors and models. The document also discloses that 107 full-time London firefighters are employed as retained, or part-time, staff with other brigades.

Business groups have also criticised claims made by striking firefighters, saying 12 hours a day was the norm for many workers in Britain. Firefighters will get three days off each week under the new deal. London Fire Brigade wants to change the current 15-hour night shift and nine hour day shift to equal 12 hour shifts day and night. The Fire Brigade Union has accused the brigade of threatening thousands of firefighters with the forced redundancies if they do not agree to new shift patterns.

Contract staff have been brought in to cover the strike, although firefighters have said they would attend serious fires, explosions, blazes involving gas cylinders or hazardous substances and road collisions but not incidents such as grass fires, flooding and people stuck in lifts, according to the brigade [Telegraph].

But politicians have called the strike irresponsible and could cost lives. One family has been left homeless after an "embarrassing" fire crew standing in for striking regulars failed to put out a blaze in their north London house. The family claimed the stand-in fire crew, drafted in by the London Fire Brigade, took nearly half an hour to reach them, did not know where the water was and continuously overshot the house with their hoses. It was only when the regular firefighters finished their strike at 18:00 and arrived at the house that the blaze was finally extinguished [North London Today].

Not all press coverage has been negative however. Writing in the Guardian, Linda Smith a firefighter of 25 years attempted to "put the record straight" and explain why the strikes were necessary. Some firefighters acknowledge the action could put lives at risk, but that they have no other choice but to strike [Romford Recorder]. The lack of support is a far cry from the atmosphere surrounding industrial action in 2002 and 2003 when firefighter were demanding a £30,000 salary [Wikipedia]. This strike is further complicated by the fact that fire vehicles have had to be taken from striking fire stations. In previous strikes the army gave cover while using Green Goddess fire engines. They have been sold off to fire brigades in developing countries, mostly in Africa.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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