FIREFIGHTERS AND control room operators enter the new year with the stakes in their pay dispute higher than ever. The government has rammed home its determination to impose the swingeing attacks on conditions, jobs and fire cover contained in the Bain review. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is committed to talks with the employers, beginning next week, and to two 48-hour strikes from 28 January and 1 February should those talks fail.
Any deal with the employers is to be put to a special FBU conference. The union's executive is also to hold a three-day meeting this month to discuss the strategy for the dispute. TUC officials are due to be there to advise. News of that has raised alarm among most union activists.
The TUC and its incoming general secretary, Brendan Barber, played a central role in persuading the FBU to suspend most of a series of strikes in the run-up to Christmas.
The government has interpreted every strike suspension as a sign of weakness, and has seized the initiative after being thrown off balance at the beginning of the strikes.
'Why should we let a man who has never led a strike in his life set the pace of our dispute?' one firefighter in east London asked Socialist Worker after a successful 100-strong support meeting the week before Christmas. 'This meeting shows we have got support. There were representatives from important local trade unions. That's who we should be focusing on.'
A meeting the same week in Camden, north London, drew 50 people, showing that the support firefighters enjoyed at the beginning of the dispute remains. But it is not only the government that believes it can go on the offensive. So do the chief officers and managements in some brigades.
The Bain report makes clear that this layer will be crucial to driving through lengthening working hours, and cuts to jobs and national agreements. Just days before Christmas fire brigade management in Berkshire sacked Simon Green, a well known FBU activist. That follows the sacking of Steve Godward, a leading FBU activist in the West Midlands.
The London fire brigade has restricted media access to stations and threatened disciplinary action against firefighters who talk to the media while on duty. Reports from other brigades confirm that a section of chief officers see the chance to clamp down on their workforce and on the FBU in anticipation of pushing through wholesale attacks.
Under those circumstances FBU activists are staggered that the union's leadership has suspended the secretary of the FBU in Manchester, Bob Pounder, from all his positions.
His 'crime' was to speak out forcefully in the press against the decision by the executive to call off the two eight-day strikes before Christmas. His suspension leaves him open to possible victimisation by a brigade that is already trying to impose cuts. Steve Godward was suspended from his union position in the West Midlands at the time management moved to sack him for an offence they claim he committed while on strike.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist has repeatedly said, 'We go out together, we stay out together, we go back together.' That means the dispute cannot be ended while people remain victimised. It should also mean the union does not open the door to management by taking unjustified action itself against activists.
'Above all, we need to regain the initiative and build the unity among ourselves and with other trade unionists,' says Neale Williams, an FBU official in north London.
'The place to do that is out on strike. That's the only thing the government understands.' Strikes at the end of this month and in February would most likely take place as Tony Blair was trying to deploy British forces for an attack on Iraq, or even after the war has started.
It would leave him fighting on two fronts and vulnerable on both to massive popular opposition. The government already feels the political heat. It was forced to publish the Fire Cover Review on the Friday before Christmas after the document was leaked to Channel 4 News.
The review, which New Labour sat on for over a year, calls for nearly doubling the number of firefighters and £1 billion more in investment. Putting the government under further pressure means standing up to the political attacks it has already launched on the FBU and will launch with a vengeance if strikes take place during a war.
There is a petition calling for Bob Pounder's reinstatement. Phone 07739 180 780 for copies.