U.K.'s Firefighters Back to Negotiate Friday
Strike to Continue
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- Negotiators for Britain's striking firefighters will meet with management in face-to-face talks Friday, the union announced on the sixth day of a nationwide walkout over pay.

The announcement followed Prime Minister Tony Blair's comment in the House of Commons on Wednesday cutting a deal to modernize the fire service would be the only way to settle the strike and raise firefighter salaries by more than 4 percent.

Firefighters walked off the job last Friday to back demands for a hefty pay increase. The 40 percent raise they seek would take their annual base salary to $49,600 _ but they have indicated they would consider 16 percent.

The government has offered the firefighters a 16 percent pay raise -- but only 4 percent immediately.The rest would be parceled out further increases over the next two years, and had to be linked to productivity gains.

A union official said Friday's talks would be informal and exploratory to discuss how the deadlocked dispute could be broken.

But the current strike, planned to last eight days, would continue despite plans to resume negotiations, he said.

Blair's government has rejected demands for 40 percent, saying any rise must be met by modernization and a reform of working practices, and on Wednesday said that could lead to a possible 20 percent cut in the numbers of firefighters.

Fire brigades minister Nick Raynsford said the government was considering the reductions over the next two years, but said layoffs could be avoided because of a large number of firefighters coming up for retirement.

Blair also suggested that the modernization plans could involve the merger of emergency control rooms, a move that Unison, the public sector union, said could cost lives.