Prime Minister John Key faced protesting firefighters but sidestepped their demands for a pay rise.
About 1600 firefighters nationwide have been involved in industrial action for the past two weeks, including limiting activities to emergency responses.
They say they have been offered no increase and blame the Government for putting pressure on the Fire Service to deny them a pay rise.
Mr Key was confronted by about 50 firefighters as he opened a new $4.9 million fire station in Mt Roskill, Auckland yesterday.
During the ceremony, alongside Fire Commission chairwoman Dame Margaret Bazley, Fire Service chief executive Mike Hall and Auckland Mayor John Banks, he was forced to raise his voice over the shouts of the firefighters outside.
The firefighters, in their yellow protective clothing, waved placards, chanted and pressed themselves against the station's glass roller doors as Mr Key spoke.
After the opening, he went outside and addressed them through a megaphone.
He insisted he had not yet received a recommendation on wage rises from the Fire Service.
"All we're saying to you guys is we're living in a backdrop where a hell of a lot of people are losing their job, where the Government is running big deficits and where we've all got to be reasonable."
Mr Key said that if insurance levies, which pay the Fire Service's wages, went up then more pressure would be placed on taxpayers, already struggling with the recession.
"At the end of the day what we're trying to do is make sure there isn't huge pressure on a lot of people that are losing their jobs," he said.
Union spokesman Boyd Raines said Mr Key's response was "fairly predictable in terms of the Nats' party line".
He said firefighters were unhappy they had been asked to forgo sick leave and injury leave entitlements to help fund a wage increase.
Efforts to secure a wage rise had proven unsuccessful but the Fire Service had funded the new Mt Roskill station at the "extravagant" cost of $4.9 million and had also refurbished the Auckland Central station, he said.
Mr Key had sidestepped the issue by saying the Fire Service and Fire Commission must sort out the dispute but both organisations had said the responsibility lay with the Government.
However, Mr Raines added: "It was good to see that he actually had the balls to come out and actually front up to the crowd."
The partial work stoppage, during which firefighters went to their workplace, made sure the trucks were prepared and attended callouts but did no other work, has run into a second week.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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