WHEN approached to write an article for this Voices of Scotland column, I was told that the choice of subject was entirely up to me. As a member of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and with the Tories’ atrocious Trade Union Bill making its way through the House of Lords, I want to keep the spotlight on the Bill. More importantly, I want to champion unions’ role in ensuring justice, health and safety and fighting for members and their families.
Due to legal proceedings, this article could not have been written until now. The inspiration to write it has come from Linda Williamson, the mother of firefighter Ewan Williamson who was killed in the line of duty.
Linda has kept her dignity and silence through the years, but recently agreed to speak out to recognise the importance of being in a trade union and to recognise the support she has had.
Her only aim was to encourage people to join a trade union and to combat the Trade Union Bill. This article is dedicated to her strength and determination to get justice for her son and to all trade unionists who make a difference every single day to the lives of millions. Unity truly is our strength.
On July 12 2009, while employed by Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service and attending a fire in the basement of the Balmoral Bar in Edinburgh, which also required multiple rescues from the tenement above, Ewan lost his life. Ewan is the only firefighter in the history of the former Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die in the line of duty. Ewan’s death was tragic, avoidable and unacceptable.
On March 10, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) jointly with the FBU published the report from the Balmoral Bar incident. It identified many safety failures that resulted in Ewan’s death, outlining 19 recommendations to help improve firefighter safety. The report was released nearly a year after SFRS admitted health and safety breaches and was fined £54,000 at the Edinburgh High Court.
Ewan was a member of the FBU, and immediately after the tragic incident the union got to work. In Britain over the last 10 years, 14 firefighters have died in the line of duty, which has tragically resulted in the union having experience in this area.
Immediately after the incident, FBU officials started the health and safety investigation. Trade unions have qualified health and safety reps whose job it is to investigate fatal accidents and push for safe working conditions.
We also began the duty of providing representation and support to Ewan’s family and work comrades. Members
and their families have access to financial support and legal representation from trade union solicitors such as Thompsons, but the support doesn’t just end there.
Too many people, in particular the Tories, don’t see the real value of trade unions when it comes to emotional support. This support is unmeasurable. You can’t put a cost to it, there are no recommendations that come from it, you won’t see any reports — but you will hear the real value from the families themselves.
When Linda was recently interviewed she said “the only salve for the open wounds came through the Fire Brigades Union, which helped provide legal representation, financial support and, above all, sensitivity. And when no-one else was there, they grieved with us.”
And despite everything that has happened, she would never discourage others from joining the fire and rescue service, only ask that they join the FBU. “If you’re not in the union and the worst happens, you’ll be on your own,” she cautions.
I asked Linda if she would look over this article as it was important to me that I had her approval. This is what she emailed back:
“Well Denise it has brought tears. I am honoured that I have been held in such high regard. I think the article is extremely touching and states the truth very clearly and courageously; anyone reading this cannot fail to see why the FBU is so important to firefighters.”
These words could be echoed by many members and their families throughout the trade union movement. The words recognise the tireless work and dedication of union reps and the role they play when disaster hits.
I do hope (but severely doubt) that the Tories will read this article and reflect on how their Bill will hurt families like the Williamsons, but I suppose you need to have a heart to do that — and that’s an organ that eludes many of them.
Denise Christie is FBU Scotland Treasurer writing in a personal capacity.