Firefighters were claiming widespread support from the public as they walked out on their first ever national strike 40 years ago today.
At that time, firemen working a full-time 48-hour week earned on average £3,700 per year. The Fire Brigades Union was pursuing an ambitious 30% pay increase for its members and called the national strike – the first in its history – in pursuit of the claim.
Union officials said firemen’s pay had lagged behind inflation for many years, effectively leaving their members much worse off. In addition, the role of the firefighter was changing fast in the 1970s, requiring them to be much better trained and equipped. A growing part of the job now involved rescuing people from the scene of serious road accidents, a change which was reflected in the renaming of many traditional ‘fire brigades’ into a modern ‘fire and rescue’ services.
The Government ruled a 30% rise out of the question, citing its policy of restricting public sector pay increases to a maximum 10%. It refused to buckle under the threat of a national strike, and instead began making contingency plans. Public opinion seemed to favour the firefighters, with most people interviewed in the media saying they deserved a better deal for the dangerous and sometimes heroic work they did.
On the first day of the strike, the Fire Brigades Union said 97.5% of its 30,000 members had heeded the strike call. For many firefighters it posed a huge dilemma, as they did not know how they would react if a major emergency happened on their patch while they were on strike.
To provide emergency cover, the government drafted in 10,000 troops manning military fire engines, nicknamed “Green Goddesses” because they were painted in army green. However, coverage across the country was patchy, many of the fire engines were outdated and poorly equipped, and most of the troops had been hastily trained. Even the troops themselves expressed concern they might be unable to cope with a major incident.
Talks continued between union officials and their employers, but there was little prospect of an early resolution, with the government sticking rigidly to its 10% cap for fear of setting a precedent. One possibility was to reduce the 48-hour working week so that firefighters could earn more in overtime payments.
The turnout of striking firefighters on picket lines outside their stations was particularly high, unlike in other industries where a lot of striking workers simply stayed at home or found other ways to fill their day. Some speculated this was because firefighters reluctant to strike would still be on hand and ready if they were needed in a big emergency.
That is exactly what happened on the first day of the dispute, when striking firefighters in East London abandoned their picket line and rushed a blaze in a basement storeroom at St Andrew’s Hospital, in Bow. They worked alongside troops to put the fire out, one firefighter telling news reporters: “We couldn’t let them die. For God’s sake, it was a hospital, what else could we do but come and help?”
There were similar incidents across the country, but rather than weaken the strike, they seemed to increase public support for it. The striking firemen received no strike pay, but donations from the public and members of other trade unions boosted a national strike fund in the run-up to Christmas.
As the days turned to weeks, there were regular news reports of troops attending fires and other emergencies in their Green Goddesses, sometimes averting disaster but occasionally struggling to cope. In cases where there was an imminent risk to life, firefighters often abandoned their picket lines and rushed to help, but in other cases they stood firm. A woman in Croydon complained she had to stand and watch her house burn to the ground because the nearest troops were half-an-hour away, while her local fire station was just round the corner.
Christmas came and went and the dispute was finally resolved in January 1978 when the firefighters settled for a 10% wage rise, taking the average salary to just over £4,000, with a promise of further increases in the future. The country heaved a sigh of relief as firemen went back to their posts, most of them also relieved the strike was finished. Over the nine weeks of the strike, insurance companies paid out £117.5m in claims, compared to £52.3m for the same period the previous year.