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12 years ago today America suffered its worst terrorist attack; images from that day have become iconic, and many of those features fire fighters – 341 fire fighters died, along with two of FDNY’s paramedics, 60 police officers and 8 private paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

There’s no question that our emergency services workers risk their lives to save not only our lives but our property, assets, flora and fauna – my September 11 post last year recognised that, but it can’t be acknowledged enough. As I type NSW fire fighters are battling blazes around Sydney, as the bush fire season starts some two months early. It’s been a warm, dry winter – there’s more to come.

I’ve written before about the Liberal Premiers’ attacks on fire fighters (here and here in particular) – on funding, staffing, equipment, and on resources for volunteers in rural areas.

I was surprised and dismayed – more than I ought to have been, in retrospect – to discover that the same thing’s happening in London: a Tory politician (in this case London Mayor Boris Johnson) has decided London’s over-supplied with fire stations and, over the protests of a majority of Borough Councillors, is about to exert mayoral privilege to overrule them and close approximately ten per cent of London’s fire stations. You’ll be shocked to learn that many of these are in the least wealthy trusts (the British version of local counsel districts), even though they have the highest density of population.

I heard about a protest being organised by London fire fighters, who’ve spent the last twelve months campaigning against the closures, and decided to join them. I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly Macmillan, a fire fighter and member of the Fire Brigades Union – she was sitting in a truck blaring “Burning Ring Of Fire” and was very helpful in giving me some background.

There were many more FBU members present, but they wouldn't clump together in a conveniently snappable bunch

There were many more FBU members present, but they wouldn’t clump together in a conveniently snappable bunch

Perhaps fifty fire fighters attended the Mayor’s question time, along with members of the press, the public – and one Aussie nurse.Boris 2I apologise for any terms I get wrong – I don’t know as much as I ought to about my own local government, let alone Britain’s. The horseshoe is Borough Councillors; the desk at the top is the Mayor, Boris Johnson – a Conservative who vowed, when he ran for office in 2008, that he wouldn’t cut services. he says today that the closures would make the Brigade more efficient – a wonderful example of conservative arithmetic that I’ve seen at home: somehow fewer workes with fewer resources become more productive, irrespective of how much productivity’s already improved.

London Mayor Boris Johnson

London Mayor Boris Johnson

Unlike Parliamentary question time at home, the gallery interjected strenuously, and though there were requests they be quiet, nobody was evicted. Mayor Johnson became increasingly flustered during the proceedings, rumpling his hair, fiddling with his sleeves, and became increasingly short with those who disagreed with him – twice he expressed outrage at Councillors from his own party, who selfishly put the needs of their constituents ahead of party unity, and at one point he told an official to get stuffed. It’s not Paul Keating-worthy, I grant you, but he never seemed to insult from a position of pressure.

Major Johnson’s arguments will be familiar to us all – he says that regional areas are closing fire houses, that deaths from house fires are dropping, that there will be no forced redundancies, and that there isn’t inexhaustable funding. I like that last point – when was the golden age where financial decisions weren’t needed?

The FBU says deaths may be dropping overall but have increased in high risk areas, some of which are affected by the closures; that the population of London’s projected to increase by 1.5 million by 2018, with no plan to increase services; and that the FDNY, which services a city with roughly the same population in terms of numbers and density, has twice as many fire fighters as the London Fire Brigade. They also point out that Mayor Johnson reallocated funding that should have gone to the fire service to police.

My favourite point was made by a Councillor – in response to Mayor Johnson’s observation that regional centres are closing fire stations, he pointed out that they’re also cutting police numbers; would the major, who’s run strong campaigns on the need for a visible and significant police force, look at reducing their numbers and funding next year? The applause was loud and sustained. This,incidentally, is at a time when at lest one regional area’s recommending Police Chiefs run the fire brigade (link), and Scotland’s already decided to merge the two services.

Here’s what isn’t mentioned – those fire houses occupy valuable land. They’ll be sold, turned into housing – often high density – and when there’s a need to increase services it won’t be viable to purchase or built on land. We’ve seen it happen, in the UK and Australia, with schools – London now faces such a crisis in school places that there are suggestions for three day week programs, or split shifts – I can imagine the joy with which my colleagues in education would greet this, and suspect English teachers are no different.

I close with two observations, after comparing the UK and Australian situations at some length. First – the UK shows us the future, unless we’re very careful. The Tories have been dismantling the NHS by stealth, so that care is now markedly different depending where you live – that’s not universal health care. Wherever there’s a profit to be made, however short sighted and short term, whatever the cost borne by society, they’re for it if it boosts the bottom line. now that we, too, have a conservative government – led by a man who seems incapable of seeing to the end of some sentences, let alone a time frame past a year – we have to be more vigilant and united than ever before.

Which brings me to my second observation – I already knew this, but it’s always worth reinforcing, because it’s easy to lose sight of: whatever differences there are between us, more binds workers together. Whatever our industry, our nation, our skills and our unique issues (like ratios and skill mix for Victorian nurses and midwives), this is clear – we have to act together or fall apart. This holds in individual workplaces (a manager who bends or breaks conditions because she knows nobody will stand up), companies (the introduction of disadvantageous changes), in mass action (like EBA negotiations), and when we’re attacked en masse (like WorkChoices).

We have the power, we just have to recognise it, and use it. Though only 18% of Australian workers are union members, there are still more of us than them – and the more of us who are informed, involved and committed the better off we all are. If you’re not a union member there really has never been a better time to join than today; if you’re already a member of your union bravo! – now look at how you can contribute beyond just your membership fees.

As I’ll be writing about in a couple of days, your union isn’t a building in the city, it’s not elected officials, and it’s not the staff – a union is its members, and it’s only as strong as they, as we, are prepared to be.

Solidarity to my fire fighting colleagues, at home and abroad, and best of luck with your mission to protect your selves, your colleagues and the public.