Up to 2,000 firefighters rallied in London on Wednesday of last week against plans to slash the number of workers who answer 999 emergency calls.
The FBU union’s rally was dedicated to destroying the false divisions between “frontline” firefighters and “back office” control room workers.
Two thirds of control workers face the sack as part of a plan to contract their jobs out to privatised regional call centres.
Sharon Riley, FBU executive member for control workers, said, “Fire control provides the critical first phase of fire service intervention. We’re not call centre staff trying to sell something – we’re emergency service workers.”
In the south east, where there are currently 120 control workers, the plan would see just eight people handle calls for the entire region.
It takes four or five workers to deal effectively with one call. “They’ll be in meltdown,” Sharon told the rally.
Jane, a control worker from Doncaster, told Socialist Worker, “All those people are going to lose their jobs – but the managers don’t care because they’ll get enormous bonuses. People will die if it goes ahead. There just won’t be the capacity to handle calls properly.”
The new control scheme has already cost £1.4 billion – more than it would “save” in a century of operation.
The loudest applause in the rally was for the South Yorkshire strike – and for any talk of fighting back.
After the rally in Westminster Central Hall, the firefighters lobbied parliament to drop the scheme.
South Yorkshire strike solidarity meeting
A rank and file South Yorkshire strike solidarity meeting after the London rally debated the way forward for the rising wave of resistance in the FBU.
Union activists from regions with live disputes came together for the discussion.
It centred on the demand being put forward by many activists that the union should recall its annual conference in order to start a national ballot.
Les Skarrats, FBU Merseyside brigade secretary, said, “I want to make one thing clear – we demand a recall conference over the attacks in South Yorkshire.
“We can fight in isolation forever and a day but where does that get us? There should be a national response. They’ve got a clear strategy – we need to attack back.”
Ian Leahair, executive committee member for London, said, “If there’s one person threatened with the sack then the whole of the union should come out. They should say if one job goes in South Yorkshire we’ll all be out the door.”
And South Yorkshire brigade secretary Ian Murray said, “At first South Yorkshire firefighters felt a bit vulnerable, but then we had the Barnsley rally and all the messages of support. On the recall conference – we’re all in favour of that.”
Some went further, suggesting that any job losses should be met with unofficial walkouts.
One FBU official told the meeting, “If you’re not ready to take unlawful, illegal – whatever you call it – action, you’re in the wrong union.”
Firefighter Steve said, “If the workers in South Yorkshire are dismissed I’ll be on my forecourt and I’ll be taking everyone else with me.”
There’s no reason not to use both tactics. Activists should demand a branch meeting and pass a motion for the recall conference.
But if it comes to it, they should be ready to walk out.