London (CNSNews.com) - Firefighters across Britain walked off the job Wednesday, sparking fears about emergency readiness in the event of a terrorist attack and forcing the U.K. government to move military fire units into civilian areas.
The strike will last for 48 hours, but if the dispute isn't solved further strikes are planned in the next several weeks, culminating in a threatened eight-day walkout starting Dec. 16.
The main firefighters' organization, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), called the strike Tuesday after talks with government officials broke down.
The first strike was originally scheduled for Oct. 29, but FBU officials postponed the walkout in hopes that a settlement could be reached. The strikes, which are not forbidden under British law, are the first such action by U.K. firefighters in 25 years.
Salaries are at the heart of the dispute. The FBU has demanded that their base rate of pay increase by 40 percent, from about $33,000 to more than $46,000 per year.
Earlier this week, a government pay review board offered the firefighters an 11 percent increase tied to changes in working practices. The union turned down the offer.
John Ransford, a member of the government's negotiating team, accused the union of "bully boy tactics designed to hold this country to ransom and put lives at risk."
"I deeply regret the FBU's decision to take strike action," he said. "This will be unnecessary, unreasonable and completely unjustified."
"Negotiation is the right way to resolve this issue - not holding the public for ransom," Ransford said.
FBU leader Andy Gilchrist said the government offer "shows contempt for our members." He accused the government of ignoring the firefighters' concerns.
"They have successfully provoked a national fire service strike," Gilchrist said.
"The membership and officials of our union have continued to act reasonably, responsibly and with great patience," he said in a statement. "(We) believe that firefighters and emergency fire control operators deserve professional pay."
Military firefighters were posted to fire stations Wednesday in preparation for the strike. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said that 18,500 members of the armed forces are on standby to provide emergency cover.
But the MoD only has about 900 ageing fire engines at its disposal, and officers admit that the firefighting troops - originally conceived as a back-up force in the event of all-out nuclear war - wouldn't be able to provide the same level of cover as the country's 4,000 civilian fire engines.
The walkout prompted questions about what the firefighters would do in the event of a major terrorist attack against Britain.
Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett have warned of an increased risk of terror attacks in the run up to the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Gilchrist said union members would return to work in the event of a national emergency.
"In the event of a catastrophic incident, they would, in fact, seek to react in the best way that they possibly could," he told a press conference Wednesday.
Despite the reassurances, politicians roundly condemned the strike action.
"We have tried our utmost to be as reasonable and generous as possible within the limitations of what is possible," Blair said.
Conservative MP David Davis put some of the blame on Blair's negotiators.
"The government cannot hide from responsibility for this strike action," he said. "It has allowed unrealistic expectations of a large pay rise to fester for too long.
"The very least the government can do now is focus on public safety," Davis said. "At this time of heightened security fears, the public needs to be satisfied that everything that can be done is being done."
Under British law, other unions representing public and government workers are forbidden from striking in sympathy with the firefighters, but the country's leading transport union has indicated that it might ask workers to stay home during the strikes because of safety concerns.
At the very least, the strike will affect transport in London, where 19 subway stations will close during the industrial action because they are too far underground to be reached by military fire equipment.
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