The fire brigade union relies on collective bargaining

The firefighters’ union leader has vowed to oppose government efforts to change the way firefighters negotiate collective agreements after he pushed through a pay rise for members that appears to stave off strike action.

With the UK embroiled in rounds of industrial action by public sector unions fighting real wage cuts, the FBU is one of the few unions where leadership has accepted a salary offer.

Firefighters called off their planned strike last month after employers raised their offer to 7 percent from the original 2 percent. Members are expected to accept the deal after voting on the deal closes on March 6.

Matt Wrack told the Financial Times that one reason the union has been able to secure decent terms for its members is that firefighters’ wages have been negotiated through a formal collective bargaining process. This means unions and employers sit down to reach an agreement that could cover labor practices or other terms and conditions, as well as pay.

Collective bargaining has not yet proven to be a panacea for difficult disputes in the rail and postal sectors. But striking NHS and school workers, who are currently embroiled in some of the government’s most intractable disputes, have a different system. Their salary is set by ministers on the basis of recommendations from independent ‘salary review bodies’, which provide advice after gathering evidence from all stakeholders.

Health unions are boycotting the NHS payroll review body this year, accusing ministers of using it as a cover for decisions that are in reality dictated by their departments’ view of affordability.

The government has now acknowledged the need to negotiate pay. This week it invited the NHS staff council, which includes all healthcare unions, to deep talks after opening them with the Royal College of Nursing last week.

But in a white paper last year, the government proposed a range of reforms, including an overhaul of the way firefighters negotiate their wages – with ministers keen to push the ambulance service into wage review bodies.

The white paper said the “sluggish” collective bargaining mechanism prevented firefighters from quickly deploying staff to support communities at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – when ministers wanted firefighters to take part in test-and-trace and participate in immunization programs.

A report by the chief inspector of fire and rescue services, released in January, said the threat of strikes could “tangibly” affect incident response and is a reason for “urgent reform” of the payroll process.

Wrack called the proposals “an attack on workers’ rights” and said the union would “fight” them. “By next week I think we will . . . probably avoided a strike while all these sectors larger than ours with pay review bodies are effectively engaged in strikes,” he said.

“Our offer showed that there is something different to do than repeat what the pay review bodies said last year.”

The government will issue a response to its own consultation on reforms for firefighters in the spring, after postponing the autumn document.

Wrack said he had stressed to ministers that there were no strikes by firefighters because of the way wage negotiations were being conducted.

“I hope they will reconsider now because we will avoid a strike through collective bargaining,” Wrack said.

Wrack also said the government’s plans for “minimum service agreements” in key public services are misguided.

“We don’t see how you can set minimum service levels in fire and rescue because virtually everything we already do is now at minimum service levels. . . for us it would mean subjecting ourselves to unsafe work practices,” he said.

The FBU chief also chastised Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer for not standing up for striking workers. “I think we as a union would like Labor to be more vocal about supporting the workers who are taking these actions,” he said. “It gives the impression that Labor is sitting on the fence.”

But Wrack said the FBU, which split from Labor in 2004 but rejoined in 2015, has no plans to split again from Britain’s main opposition party.

“Whatever disagreements we may or may not have with Keir Starmer, we’re in a much stronger position to do this when we’re connected,” he said. “If you’re not a member, you won’t be in the room.”

He said Labor would come under pressure ahead of the general election to drop plans to implement pro-union measures such as repealing recent Tory anti-union legislation. “The pressure will be on them not to be ‘due to the unions’. . . We will demand that they absolutely honor this commitment.” The fire brigade union relies on collective bargaining

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