Exclusive: FBU’s Matt Wrack on climate change, Labour and the Bibby Stockholm barge

Exclusive interview with Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union

We spoke with the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Matt Wrack, about tackling climate change, his hopes (and fears) for an incoming Labour government and the union’s Bibby Stockholm barge legal case.

Firefighters find themselves at the forefront of mitigating the consequences of climate change as they’re tasked with tackling extreme weather conditions such as increased wildfires and flooding.

Wrack highlighted the “unprecedented” scale of wildfires in the UK last summer when fire spread into outer London damaging homes in the capital due to extreme heat, exacerbated by the impact of devastating funding cuts.  

“While the extremes of weather are not to the degree that you see in California or Australia, we have nevertheless seen a trend towards increasing numbers of land fires,” said Wrack.

“It’s pretty unprecedented and shows the scale of what we’re facing.

“Those incidents are very labour-intensive, they take a long time to tackle, they’re very resource-intensive, lots of water needed, lots of people, and they can last for a long time. So we have moreland and grassland fires that last for days and sometimes weeks.

“And all of that is impacted by the reduction in the numbers of firefighters that we’ve got.

“In 2018, there were fires in the northwest, in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Greater Manchester, and they lasted for several days. But some of those fire services have seen a reduction of about 50% in the staffing numbers. That inevitably undermines your ability to tackle incidents of that scale.”

The FBU backed a motion in TUC Congress, which was passed unanimously, that called for unions to coordinate and support further national and global efforts to tackle climate change.

Wrack backed calls for the wider labour movement to take-on climate change and support a progressive, green labour market, but said it will be a challenge.

“We are supportive of the labour movement taking up issues of climate change and the need for a workers’ transition to a carbon-free economy. But how you do that? Protecting jobs, living standards, and so on, which is a huge challenge.

“This is a wider debate around how trade unions progress forward and do more to address climate change.

He added: “We’re a Labour Party affiliate and we’ve worked with constituency parties to make sure that climate is on the agenda, with a radical perspective that raises workers’ issues and the need to create new jobs and so on.”

Speaking on the Labour Party, one of Wrack’s hopes for an incoming Labour government was an end to the historic silencing of the voice of unions on issues around safety concerns in the public sector.

“The union, which played a central role throughout much of the post-war period, has been increasingly deliberately side-lined. We think that’s a mistake. We can highlight case by case where that has led to failures.

“Grenfell is perhaps the most horrific example where we gave warnings about external cladding systems decades ago which were ignored, and there’s people supposedly giving advice to governments, nodded things through, nodded through deregulation, and the result was a horrific fire at Grenfell Tower.”

Disaffiliated from the Labour party for a decade or so, the union re-affiliated on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Wrack makes clear his thoughts on Labour’s current leadership.

Speaking on Keir Starmer, Wrack said: “There’s no getting away from the fact that he has very consciously and deliberately backtracked on many of the pledges he made when he stood for election as leader.

“We don’t hide our disagreements on those issues. But equally, he’s the Labour leader, and our job as a union now is to debate, discuss, and argue with him and his shadow ministers about what they should do if they get into power.

“My warning to them is that if you just end up not making any pledges, wanting to sound as safe as possible, I’m not sure that will provide the inspiration to people to turn out to vote.

“They will stumble into government because they’re not Rishi Sunak, which is not a particularly convincing strategy to me.”

Commenting on the main challenges his industry and members face going forward, Wrack said: “In the fire service, it comes down to underfunding and an unprecedented period of cuts to public expenditure.

“And that affects us in all sorts of different ways. It means that we’ve lost an unprecedented number of jobs, fire stations, fire engines, and it means our pensions and pay has been attacked.

“As we start to approach a general election, we’re starting to think about what demands we place on an incoming government about beginning to invest in our public service.”

Today at Congress, FBU will forward a motion to renew the fire and rescue service, condemning Tory-led Westminster over ‘savage cuts’, which has resulted in the loss of 12,000 firefighters’ jobs.

The FBU settled a months-long pay dispute with the government in March, securing a two-year deal amounting to a 12% pay increase. The union is now starting to discuss when they will devise and submit a claim seeking a new settlement from 2024.

The government faces a legal challenge launched by the FBU over safety measures for the Bibby Stockholm barge which Suella Braverman hopes to hold up to 500 refugees and asylum seekers.

Wrack said it represents the unions wider interest in public safety, beyond just their members’ working conditions.

“We’ve got a tradition of taking up wider issues, including legal action against employers or authorities or governments, if necessary,” said Wrack.

“As a union, we’ve got an interest in wider public safety issues than just our own conditions of service. You can see that in the Grenfell Tower inquiry where we are a core participant.

“That clearly has an impact on our member’s safety, but also on the safety of tenants and residents in high rise blocks of flats.”

“We’ve taken this on safety grounds,” added Wrack on the Bibby Stockholm case, but commented on a, “wider humanitarian concern that people should be treated with dignity, and that should include migrants or refugees as well”.

We will be providing further trade union coverage from the Trade Union Congress which is happening until Wednesday.

(Photo credit: Creative Commons / Flickr)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

Comments are closed.