For a fireman, the pealing of a call-up bell is at once a summons to action, an intimation of danger, and perhaps a foreshadowing of death. Even after 26 years in the job, Tony Collis still gets an adrenaline jolt when the bell begins to ring in central London's Manchester Square Fire Station. But when the familiar clanging began at 9 a.m. last Friday, Collis felt only emptiness. Instead of running for the gear and piling into their red fire engines, Collis and his colleagues strolled somberly to the front of the ornate 19th century red-brick building and, for the second time in a week, formed a picket line.
They had begun the first strike in a feisty, even jaunty frame of mind. This time, they were more subdued. Some of the men had spent all night in front of the station TV set, following the tense pay negotiations between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and their employers, a network of local government authorities that manage the brigades; when the talks broke down around 7 a.m., amid cries of betrayal from all sides, the firemen knew they were in for an eight-day walkout with the possibility of two equally long strikes scheduled before Christmas.
For Collis, 46, the immediate problem was financial: the firemen wouldn't be paid while on strike. "The prospect is frightening," he said. "I'm worried about defaulting on the mortgage, and I've just canceled Christmas there'll be a turkey but no presents this year." But Collis was not ready to back down. An FBU representative, he was among 88% of firefighters who had voted to back the union's call for a 40% pay rise. After the first strike, FBU leader Andy Gilchrist had suggested they might accept 16%. The employers, at the instructions of the British government, demanded that the firemen first agree to modernize the service by, among other things, taking on more first-aid tasks even training as paramedics and changing inflexible shift patterns. The two sides cobbled together an agreement and submitted it to the government late into Thursday night. But the government, which must approve any deal, decided the firemen hadn't given enough. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the agreement would have required "a blank check," which was out of the question.
The mood on Collis' picket line was bitter, only broken by noisy cheers as passing motorists responded to a sign saying honk if you support us. The anger was directed at the government: How could Labour Labour, for Heaven's sake! refuse to find money for deserving workers when it was prepared to pay out hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money for a war with Iraq? Says Collis, "I was a Tory, but have voted twice for Labour since 1997 not again."
Collis earns €3,900 a year for driving a fire engine his van-driver brother earns €,460 more and finds it hard to pay his mortgage and €70 a month child support for teenage daughters from his first marriage. That's despite the fact that his second wife, Sue, works full time. Collis lives 90 km away from his fire station because he cannot afford London housing; he commutes by motor bike to avoid slow and expensive public transport. He saves some money by sleeping on the fire station floor between shifts during the week. To boost his income, Collis works as a chair upholsterer on his days off. The shift system of two nine-hour days followed by two 15-hour nights and then four days off allows many firefighters to have second jobs; critics say this weakens their claim of not making enough money. Collis replies that their workweek still averages out at 42 hours.
At week's end, the FBU and the government were each urging the other to end the stalemate, raising hopes that the strike might not run its full course. Collis and his mates said they could hold out until Prescott blinked, but their confidence was not nearly as high as in the first walkout, when opinion polls had indicated most Britons were on their side. Collis worried about the fickleness of public attitudes. A week of daily inconveniences like tube stations closed for lack of fire cover might change people's mood. Above all, Collis worried about the possibility of big fires too big for the military replacements and their geriatric "Green Goddess" fire trucks leading to multiple casualties. "Deaths will turn the public against us," he said, moodily. A peal of the call-up bell to signal the end of the strike would come as a welcome relief.