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Leaders of some of the country's biggest unions have warned the government that the firefighters' pay dispute could...
Leaders of some of the country's biggest unions have warned the government that the firefighters' pay dispute could 'sour industrial relations' and threaten Labour's public services agenda.

General secretaries of seven unions appealed to deputy prime minister John Prescott to urge the fire service employers to re-open negotiations with the FBU.

In letters to Mr Prescott, they state: 'I am writing to express my union's deep concern about the national fire employers' decision to reject agreement with the Fire Brigades Union at the meeting for the Fire Service National Joint Council on 2 August. This move has triggered a strike ballot that the Fire Brigades Union has been anxious to avoid.

'As you know, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber undertook to broker these talks in the hope of breaking the deadlock in implementing the June 2003 Pay and Conditions Agreement. Brendan expressed his deep disappointment at this breakdown. Both sides' negotiators had worked hard for several days. Their lengthy and detailed talks resulted in an agreed package that had resolved every remaining issue. The full employers' side endorsed every aspect of the package, except bank holiday working. Brendan called for talks to resume urgently so as to conclude this long running dispute and avoid the prospect of further strikes.

'We are also concerned that the national employers have subsequently stated that no new talks will occur until after the outcome of the FBU's strike ballot, which closes at the end of August.

'We note that the FBU continues to stand by the provisional deal, and would urge the employers' side to reflect on their position and return to the negotiating table as early as possible.

'I am sure you would agree that the pay dispute in the fire service has gone on for long enough in such a vital public service and a further embittering of industrial relations will do no service to the public, nor will it help the government's public services agenda.

'It will also potentially sour the wider industrial relations climate and inevitably polarise the issue as unions are called upon to lend support to the FBU's campaign.

'We would urge you to do what you can to help bring employers urgently back to the negotiating table to resolve this dispute once and for all.'

The letters have been sent by Bernie Corbett, general secretary of The Writers' Guild; Kevin Curran, GMB; John Hannett, Usdaw; Dave Prentis, Unison; Mark Serwotka, PCS, John F.Smith, Musicians' Union and Tony Woodley, TGWU.

It is clear that there is growing unease among fire service employers over the actions of their national negotiators. Avon and Shropshire fire authorities have said that they are prepared to negotiate local deals and pay the increases.

The FBU is balloting its 52,000 members on industrial action following the breakdown of talks over payment of a 3.5 per cent increase, which was due from last November, and a further 4.2 per cent rise, which was due from 1 July. Voting closes on 31 August.

The union has requisitioned a special meeting of the National Joint Council, the fire services main negotiating body, to be held on 27 Aug in a bid to break the deadlock in the dispute.

Calling the meeting, Mike Fordham, FBU assistant general secretary, said that any delay in negotiations was 'unacceptable and unnecessary and will cause untold and long term damage to industrial relations in the fire service and possibly wider.'


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