TALKS BETWEEN the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), local employers and ACAS were due to begin this week. The FBU has called two 48- hour strikes for 28 January and 1 February.
'The whole union is going to have to up the momentum of our pay campaign after the Christmas break and the suspension of strike action at the end of last year,' one FBU brigade secretary told Socialist Worker. 'The government has made clear we will not get what we want through talks. There's no alternative to going on the offensive.'
The government hopes it has ridden out the dispute after firefighters and control operators struck for ten days last year. It is certainly vulnerable to further action. The army is already stretched by the build up in the Gulf and would come under serious pressure from a firefighters' strike.
New Labour would face an immense backlash if the firefighters were forced to strike just as Blair opened a bottomless pit of cash for war. But there is already talk from some FBU leaders of calling off the two 48-hour strikes to extend talks.
The government has seized the initiative after every previous strike suspension during the campaign. That has left the fight now not only about pay, but also defending the fire service from cuts and Thatcherite 'reforms'.
The government's hard line has galvanised support for the firefighters among other trade unionists. The lesson from the two strikes that did take place is that there is a groundswell of solidarity to be tapped. The government will sink to any level to pile political pressure on the FBU's leadership.
Building support within and outside the FBU for further action and pushing the union's leadership to withstand that pressure are vital as the government and employers hope to string the union along in talks.