Boris Johnson is set to overrule the capital’s fire authority and order the introduction of a controversial policy to withhold a full day’s pay for firefighters who strike for part of a shift.
Last year authority members rejected a proposal from fire commissioner Ron Dobson to adopt the policy to help reduce the cost of covering strikes by the Fire Brigades Union which were held in protest at Government plans to increase their members’ retirement age.
Instead of striking for a full shift, firefighters staged a series of two hour walkouts across multiple days, a decision the FBU says was made to minimise disruption to the public.
However the need to hire private contractors to cover the strikes has left the authority with a £10m bill.
Much of this bill is due to the fact that, while the contractor’s services were only needed for a couple of hours per strike day, the company only provided services on a minimum 12 hour basis.
Fire authority members rejected the commissioner’s proposal but were ordered to reconsider by the Mayor.
In October a grouping of Labour, Green party and Liberal Democrat members expressed concern that adopting the policy would place the authority in the middle of the dispute between ministers and the union.
Speaking at the time, Green party member Darren Johnson said: “Ending partial payment for partially worked shifts during fire disputes would amount to a management lockout and all the evidence suggests that this will exacerbate the current dispute and lead to rapidly deteriorating industrial relations.”
However the Mayor’s chief of staff, Sir Edward Lister, has now written to the authority advising that the Mayor is minded to ‘direct’ members to implement the policy.
Referring to the FBU’s use of partial-shift strikes, Sir Edward says: “The new tactic adopted by the FBU of using periods of discontinuous strike action short of a whole shift seems deliberately intended to minimise the financial impact on those taking strike action, whilst maximising the inconvenience and cost to the Authority.
“The inconvenience and cost to the Authority is of great concern to the Mayor and therefore he is minded to direct the Authority to adopt a policy which will minimise this impact.
“Although some may seek to argue that the Mayor is seeking to attack firefighters, I should stress that this is not the case. The Mayor only wants to address the significant financial impact of the FBU’s tactic of industrial action has on the Authority.”
The letter acknowledges “that there may be challenges” if the FBU withdrew from an agreement to suspend strike action in the event of a major incident, but says the Mayor “considers that the financial burden on the Authority of the current policy to accept partial performance outweighs the unknown potential challenges which may arise from a major incident.”
Authority members will consider their formal response to the Mayor’s letter next week.
Commenting on it, Fiona Twycross AM, Labour’s London Assembly Fire Spokesperson, said: “This latest round of threats is little more than blatant electioneering from the Mayor.
“Trying to reignite an industrial dispute with threats to lock-out firefighters in the run up to the general election smacks of political opportunism. Preventing firefighters from returning to work after a short strike action would mean recklessly leaving the capital with an inferior service despite having experienced and willing firefighters on hand.
“It seems the Mayor is more interested in looking tough on unions ahead of his return to Parliament than he is in ensuring our fire service is properly run.”
The Mayor’s letter has also been criticised by Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, who said: “All strike action by firefighters has been lawful and in defense of their pensions.
“If Boris Johnson really believes it is safer for firefighters to be locked out for entire days rather than hours, he is living on another planet.
“Locking out firefighters is a vindictive act on behalf of a mayor who has already decimated the number of firefighters and fire stations in London.
“The safety of Londoners is not the mayor’s top priority. He clearly despises the firefighters who serve London day in and day out and are simply standing up for their rights.”