ANDY Gilchrist, the firefighters’ leader, is facing a leadership challenge after the Fire Brigades Union finally conceded defeat in its long-running dispute by accepting a reduced pay offer of 16 per cent.
Delegates at a conference in Glasgow voted by three to one in favour of the offer despite it being tied to modernisation and falling far below the 40 per cent rise demanded during the nine-month protest.
The agreement is a humiliation for Mr Gilchrist, who won the general secretaryship by standing on a left-wing ticket which promised members a massive improvement in pay and conditions.
The union leader is expected to face a leadership contest at the FBU’s annual conference from delegates furious at his inability to deliver his election pledges.
Under the terms of the agreement with local government employers, the union has agreed to accept a 16 per cent deal over two and a half years in return for a thorough review of working practices.
Delegates at the Glasgow conference made no secret of their anger at the deal, with one saying: "I am absolutely disgusted with the vote, it is a disgraceful decision."
There was widespread applause from the conference floor at calls for a change of personnel at the top of the union. Rank and file members fear they are ending the dispute in a worse position than when they started: in addition to accepting a programme of modernisation which could lead to job cuts, the government is pressing ahead with legislation allowing it to impose future pay and conditions on the service.
Andy Brickels, the chairman of the FBU’s East Midlands branch, said: "No-one is happy about this deal and there wasn’t a single speaker in favour, but we had to have a reality check.
"It is still a slight victory for the union and is probably the best deal in the public sector."
But Matt Wrack, the union’s regional organiser in London, said that it was a "very sad day" for the union and for the fire service.
"Everyone is unhappy about this," Mr Wrack said. "The leadership has mishandled the dispute from the start and they should consider their position.
"We should have carried on," he added.
Mr Gilchrist used a passionate, 20-minute speech to defend taking firefighters into their first industrial action for more than 21 years, insisting it was the best settlement won by any public-sector group.
"We have made real progress towards our objective of 30,000," he said.
"It is a pay rise three times the inflation rate over the period of the claim, with pay parity for retained firefighters which is a historic achievement."
The acrimonious dispute originally received widespread support, but the return of army-manned Green Goddesses to the streets and the prospect of prolonged union militancy saw public opinion swing against the firefighters.
Mr Gilchrist was forced to concede the depth of anger among delegates, admitting the FBU executive would need to explain to members why the offer had been accepted. He said: "It is not a victory or a defeat, we still believe our members are worth 30,000, but I believe that 25,000 by next July is a decent settlement."
Acknowledging a minority of delegates were critical of his leadership, he added: "There are clearly people who are unhappy with the offer and with myself or the executive".
A statement from the Local Government Association said: "The real work now begins to deliver the service improvements that the fire authorities believe to be long overdue.
"It is also hoped that this agreement will signal the beginning of a more positive partnership, working together to deliver the changes that will take the fire service into the 21st century."
Sir Jeremy Beecham, the chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "I have no doubt that the FBU recognises there is a great deal of urgent work in the coming months.
"This agreement will allow the employers and the FBU to work in a real partnership to deliver improvements as quickly as possible."