Delegates at the IAFF 54th Convention welcomed a voice of solidarity and unity from across the pond Tuesday. General Secretary of the United Kingdom’s Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Matt Wrack congratulated the IAFF and Convention delegates on International’s 100th anniversary while expressing solidarity on issues including trade unionism and fire safety standards.
“We live in times when many politicians tell us that trade unions are a relic from the past, dinosaurs from a bygone age,” he said. “But today, more than ever, trade unions are necessary to defend fire fighters and to protect our interests. He added that the FBU has paid close attention to the work the IAFF has done on such important issues as occupational cancer, fire fighter wellness and fitness, fire fighter mental health and other research.
“It is a marvelous achievement for you to have built the IAFF into a 313,000-strong army of fire fighters, the largest fire fighter union on the planet and a great champion for our profession here and across the globe.”
The FBU is a Global Alliance partner, and General President Harold Schaitberger has the honor of attending the FBU’s annual conference in June, which also served as a celebration of its 100th anniversary this year. “Records show that you got started in February 1918. We took a little bit longer – until October – of the same year to get going. So it looks like you beat us to it, but we’re going back to the archives to see if we can find anything else,” he quipped.
Introduced by Schaitberger as “a vigorous defender of trade union rights” and a great friend to the FBU, Wrack dedicated the lion’s share of his remarks to a terrible tragedy that occurred in London in June 2017 when the Grenfell Tower apartment burned, at a cost of 72 lives. It was the worst fire in the United Kingdom since the World War II in terms of loss of life “despite the incredible intervention of our fire fighters and fire emergency control staff who saved many, many people in that building.”
Wrack took aim at the many factors that contributed to the tragedy, including elevators that fire fighters could not operate, unsafe stairwells and doors, improper compartmentation and, infamously, an exterior cladding added not long before the fire that Wrack described as “effectively made of gasoline wrapped in petroleum.”
But at the public inquiry into the tragedy, officials called fire fighters first to the stand to answer questions, and the first thing questioned was firefighting operations – “not the people who decided to put flammable materials around 23 storeys of an apartment block,” said Wrack.
More than 1,000 fire fighters have been interviewed by police since the fire, with an FBU representative present each time. Wrack said the response to the Grenfell tragedy under such terrible conditions is a great credit to his members that should resonate in the public eye. “When we hear the press attacking us as troublemakers, militants, radicals, because we want to protect our pay, or we want them to stop stealing our retirement pensions, then we should point to those people queueing up in their breathing apparatus to enter that hellhole and say, that’s what union members look like.”