FIREFIGHTERS and control staff now have a chance to stave off swingeing attacks on their conditions by employers who have reneged on an earlier pay deal.
They face a crucial ballot over the next two weeks on the future of their pay and conditions.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive came under pressure on Monday to stop retreating before arrogant local authority employers-who are backed by New Labour ministers.
The strength of feeling among FBU members became clear last week when 35 out of 58 brigades took unofficial industrial action after employers said firefighters would not receive an expected 7 percent rise.
Alan MacLean, secretary of the FBU in Nottinghamshire, told Socialist Worker, 'My brigade reluctantly voted to accept the deal which ended our dispute in June. But people were furious that the employers had reneged on their side of the bargain and were going to give us just 3.5 percent this month with the rest of the increase paid sometime next year.'
FBU leaders saw the unofficial action as a means to put pressure on the employers to give the full 7 percent.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist limited the issue to just the percentage while going along with employers' demands for hugely worse conditions for firefighters and control staff.
But for many FBU members the unofficial action, which came within 24 hours of the post workers' victory, was about much more.
'It was also a message to the employers and our own union that we do not want to see our conditions eroded,' says Mark Barter from the FBU in Bedfordshire. When our pay campaign started last year Andy Gilchrist said that at each stage of confrontation with the employers and the government he wanted to be able to look over his shoulder and see 55,000 FBU members behind him. Well, we're saying we are there and we are telling you not to sell out our conditions.'
FBU leaders moved to call off the unofficial action at the end of last week. In some areas it was going beyond what they had imagined.
But Bedfordshire and some other brigades were still refusing all work except emergency calls at the beginning of this week.
'The action was not enough to wrest control of what our union leaders are doing,' says Adrian Clarke, secretary of the FBU in Cambridgeshire.
'And there was an understandable cynicism from some people over whether it was worth doing, given that the leadership who have let us down so badly looked on the action as a bargaining chip. But it did show that there is life in the rank and file. My region and many others mandated our executive member to vote for a recalled national conference so delegates could decide what to do. I know he backed that. But I'd like to know who didn't and why.'
Andy Gilchrist and the core leaders of the FBU managed on Monday to avoid calling a conference and instead are putting the employers' demands on pay to a postal ballot.
Many activists suspect that the union's leaders believe the members are so ground down that they will grudgingly accept it.
Rejecting it would mean moving toward strike action, which FBU leaders are describing in apocalyptic tones.
Their entire handling of the dispute from the strikes last year to giving in to the employers now has led to widespread calls on stations for the FBU leadership to be replaced.
'There's no doubting the anger with the leadership,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London. Many people are rightly talking about standing candidates against them next year. But we cannot just wait till then. The attacks are happening now and we have to talk about resistance now.
'It will be an uphill fight to win rejection in the ballot. But the unofficial action showed people have not given up. Despite the leadership, despite knowing they have no strategy for a fight, activists need to get together to win as big a rejection as possible and to organise a counterforce in the union that can offer a way forward. The postal workers lost a national strike ballot. But organisation at the base of the union turned a management offensive into a clear victory for our side.'
The new issue of Red Watch, the rank and file paper for firefighters and control staff, will be out next week. Phone 07973 521 594 for copies.