CHEERS WENT up in Hyde Park on Saturday as Fire Brigades Union (FBU) national official John McGhee announced, '20,000 people have marched today.' The rally was the culmination of a determined march through central London by firefighters, control staff, their families and other trade unionists.
The demonstration was a defiant answer to the abuse heaped on the FBU by the Blair government and the media, and their attempts to claim the union's pay campaign has collapsed. 'We are already used to John 'Two Jags' Prescott,' John McGhee told the crowd. 'Now we are up against Tony 'Two Flats' Blair.'
There was huge applause when TUC president Nigel de Gruchy called tabloids such as the Sun and the Mail 'the pillars of poison in society'. Revulsion at the way this Labour government has attacked the firefighters ran through the demonstration. There were home-made placards and banners denouncing the Blairs for buying two luxury flats.
Others contrasted the 40 percent pay rise given to government ministers with their insistence that firefighters must make do with poor pay. Everyone knew that the demonstration, called by the FBU and backed by the TUC, would have been far bigger had the planned eight-day strike not been suspended on Monday of last week.
'It's not only that there would have been more FBU members,' said Ian Foulkes from Liverpool. 'It would have also meant large delegations of other trade unionists.'
Firefighters, control staff and their families made up about 80 percent of the march. There were big delegations from London and parts of the south east. The shift system meant that many firefighters from further afield could not attend. Activists in every union reported that the suspension of the strike meant it was much harder to convince workmates that last Saturday was an important focus of support for the firefighters.
There were mixed views on the march about the decision to suspend the strike. But there was a clear feeling that, no matter what the right wing press says, the fight is far from over. There was little optimism that talks at ACAS, due to start this week, would gain concessions from the employers and the government. Many FBU members on the march expected an eight-day strike to go ahead from Monday of next week.
Experienced activists who spoke to Socialist Worker said that even if it too was suspended, the union's executive would have to announce strike dates for January from its meeting this week.
'We have to respond with action,' said Martin Gallagher from Lancashire. 'Our eight-day strike was solid. Now the government has upped the stakes against us. There is a way to win. We won't win this dispute by standing around braziers on picket lines. Strike action has to be connected with building solidarity. Our union leadership should be making it clear that what we now face is a fundamental attack on an essential public service and on our union. The message to the TUC and other union leaders has to be that it's not just sympathy that we want, and not even just collections, but solidarity action.' (For more on the firefighters click here)
THE EXECUTIVE council of the FBU was to meet for three days this week to assess the state of the dispute and map out a further strategy. Two things are clear. Saturday's march showed the determination of rank and file firefighters to win.
At the same time, the government feels it has some room to manoeuvre because last week's strike was called off. 'We can't keep letting the government off the hook,' several leading FBU activists told Socialist Worker.
Putting the pressure back on Blair, who faces mounting opposition over the flats scandal and his support for Bush's war, means returning to the confident action that marked the beginning of the campaign. It means refusing to be browbeaten by New Labour or cajoled by the likes of TUC general secretary John Monks into moderating action in the hope that the government will water down its attacks.
Many firefighters are discussing two other important lessons of the last month. Red Watch, the rank and file paper, is finding an increasing audience as more FBU members realise they need organisation at the base of the union and cannot simply rely on union leaders.
Many FBU members are discussing why the union funds New Labour and what form of political representation working class people need.
LAST SATURDAY revealed the widening breach between trade unionists and workers on the one hand and the government and the Labour Party on the other. There was enthusiastic applause for each trade union leader at the rally who spoke in support of the firefighters.
There was no speaker from the Labour Party. A lukewarm message from Tony Lloyd (of the Labour MPs' trade union group) received no applause. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said, 'We've seen the government in particular attempt to demonise us. I never thought we'd see a Labour government attempt that.'
He hit back at the government for having the nerve to accuse the union of 'politicising' the dispute. He said, 'They say we should not be involved in politics. But when politicians suggest they might want to get rid of 10,000 firefighters, we've every right to get involved in politics.'
Left wing union leaders Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka were not put on the platform but had messages of support read out. Dave Prentis, general secretary of the 1.3 million strong Unison union, said, 'People deserve better from this government than the failed policies of the last. This is not just about pay. It is an outpouring from public service workers who feel undervalued and who have seen promises broken.'
He said that, while he wanted to work with the government, 'What we will never do is sell jobs down the river, sell services down the river.' The main thrust of the speeches was to call on the government to accept the draft agreement between the union and the employers, which John Prescott ripped up two weeks ago.
Andy Gilchrist said, 'If this government has the reckless audacity to intervene to wreck a settlement through ACAS, then most certainly we will be back on strike.'
The government has already intervened by setting limits to what the employers can agree to and by handpicking who they have as negotiators. 'The draft agreement scuppered by Prescott is a long way short of our pay claim,' Neale Williams, from Islington station in north London, told Socialist Worker. 'The general feeling is that ACAS is a tactic to buy time for us to launch a new phase of the campaign. We cannot keep delaying. We have to keep up the momentum we've built up.'
THE FIRE that swept the historic heart of Edinburgh last weekend would have been worse had the government's 'modernisation' plans been implemented. It took hold late Saturday night and peaked in the early hours on Sunday. That is the time when the government is looking to REDUCE fire cover.
Some 150 people were evacuated as over 100 firefighters battled with the blaze. Edinburgh firefighter Andy Kelly says, 'Ministers claim we don't have major fires at night.
'If modernisation goes ahead the way they want it, we won't have enough appliances to deal with incidents like this.' The area includes residential buildings and the fire took hold very quickly in the narrow streets.
Any delay in getting appliances there, which would be the case if they were not fully crewed by full time firefighters, would have put even more lives at risk.