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British Firefighters Begin an Eight-Day Strike

November 23, 2002|From Reuters

LONDON — British firefighters began an eight-day strike Friday, blaming the government for wrecking a last-minute pay deal and leaving the armed forces to provide emergency cover.

Returning from a NATO summit, Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into a political storm but said he was ready for a fight with a service he accuses of living in the past.

Firefighters had been pressing for a 40% pay raise but early Friday were set to agree to an employers' offer of a 16% package, when ministers scotched the proposal at the last minute.

"When a real chance of peace was possible, the government has intervened to block that offer," said Fire Brigades Union leader Andy Gilchrist.

Military chiefs already have warned that their forces are stretched to the limit at a time when contingency planning is underway for a possible offensive in Iraq.

The strike also comes as the government has put Britain on heightened alert for possible terrorist attacks.

About 19,000 army, navy and air force personnel -- a tenth of British forces -- have been drafted to cover for the firefighters, using outdated "green goddess" fire engines up to 50 years old.

Ten people died in blazes or on the roads during the first firefighter strike, although none of the deaths was attributed to the two-day stoppage last week.

The firefighters' walkout prompted fears of a long winter of industrial unrest.

Last-ditch talks are underway to stop a strike by key workers at seven of Britain's major airports, which could ground planes across the country next week. Others, from subway workers to teachers, have taken or are considering strike action.

Some in government are said to want a showdown to prove that Blair is not under the unions' thumb.

"If people think the government and the country can be held to ransom through strike action, can be bounced with half-baked proposals in the middle of the night ... then they are not living in the real world," the Labor Party prime minister's official spokesman told reporters.

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