Socialist Worker

Firefighters are striking for us all

by Tom Walker
Issue No. 2224

London firefighters protest last month over plans to sack them all (Pic: http://www.valeriostheofanidis.comValerios Theofanidis )

London firefighters protest last month over plans to sack them all (Pic: Valerios Theofanidis)

London’s firefighters were set to strike this Saturday, in the first big walkout since the Tories launched their cuts onslaught.

The firefighters are in the frontline of fighting the Tories as the FBU union members step up their battle against bosses’ plans to sack all 5,500 of them.

The mass sackings threat is designed to bully them into taking worse shifts that would mean cuts to night-time fire cover.

And their Tory boss Brian Coleman, the chair of the fire authority, gets ever more outrageous in his rhetoric.

This week he told local radio, “If it means ‘doing a Ronald Reagan’—where he got rid of the air traffic controllers—I’ve got 948 firefighters who voted not to go on strike, together with the non union members and the officers, I reckon 2,000 will sign their new contract.”

Former US president Reagan sacked more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in the 1980s. Asked if he was pledging to go through with sacking the firefighters, Coleman replied: “It’s as good as—and I’m quite relaxed about that.”

But last week the firefighters delivered the best answer to his threats: they voted by 79 percent for strikes on a 79 percent turnout.

They were set to strike from 10am to 6pm this Saturday and again on Monday 1 November. And they are also continuing with other forms of action short of a strike.

The strikes come after 3,000 angry firefighters marched on London fire brigade headquarters last month. The union will also join the anti-cuts march in London during its strike this Saturday.

Everyone can do something to help make the strikes a success. Workers and students can send messages of support to firefighters and twin union branches with the local fire station.

We can learn a lot from the firefighters—so why not invite FBU members to address branches and tour offices?

We also have to act with striking firefighters to shut down the planned scabbing operation.

After all, the clock is ticking. 26 November, the day the bosses can legally start sacking firefighters, is getting closer.

And Coleman shows no signs of backing down—in fact he launches new provocations every day.


Bosses threatened to dock firefighters’ pay last week over their action short of a strike. Unfortunately union officials felt forced to “comply under protest” with some of their demands to avoid members losing too much pay.

But at the same time, FBU regional executive member Ian Leahair wrote, “We have no alternative now but to consider seeking an escalation of the strike… managers should not make the mistake of thinking that they can get away with this sort of bullying.”

The officials need to be held to these words. There is no doubt about it: the firefighters will have to escalate the action even further to beat the bosses.

An open letter to the union’s London regional committee is circulating among rank and file FBU activists.

It welcomes the eight-hour walkouts, but argues we must go further, calling for “strikes… at least 24 hours in duration with all watches [groups of firefighters] taking action within an eight-day period”.

“They have forced us to strike,” it goes on, “so let’s strike to win.” Also vital is that the union backs picketing that can break the bosses’ outsourced scabbing operation (see below).

And at the same time, the FBU needs to be ready if crazed Coleman really does try to push through the mass sackings.

The union has long held the position that if a single firefighter is sacked it will trigger a recall of the annual conference and a ballot for a national strike. The union needs to set the date for that conference—now.

Solidarity from other groups of workers will help build up the firefighters’ confidence to do that.

A rank and file initiative among striking tube workers in the Trouble Down the Line group is seeing many pass a motion that suggests walkouts over safety on strike days.

“During the FBU strike the lack of fire cover would force London Underground staff to seriously consider refusing to work on the grounds of health and safety,” it says. Tube workers walked out over safety during the firefighters’ national strikes in 2002.

Other groups of workers are discussing similar action.

For example, a motion being put to several trade union branches in East London spells out the fire risks and says workers should “refuse to work during FBU strike days as it is not safe”.

Not every workplace can pull off a refusal to work—but everyone could take some kind of initiative to support the firefighters, whether it’s visiting the picket lines or doing a collection.

The firefighters are fighting for us all. If they win, it can be the first in a series of victories that can turn the tide against the Tories.

Scab bosses are in with the Tories

When London’s firefighters strike, private firm AssetCo has a £12 million contract to provide scab fire cover.

John Shannon, AssetCo’s chief executive, is the man behind the scabs.

Shannon’s entry in the Sunday Times Rich List points out, “He has a 40 percent stake [in AssetCo] worth £51.6 million plus other assets.”

In March, he hit the jackpot when he sold off 777,777 shares, pocketing £474,000 to add to his annual pay of £300,000 and bonus of £400,000.

With the military in Afghanistan and the “green goddess” fire engines that were used against the 2002 national strike sold off, the firm plans to use London as a proving ground to sell its strikebreaking “services” to other brigades.

AssetCo already owns all London’s fire engines under a 20-year Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal—which is one reason why it was so easy for bosses to confiscate 27 engines last week, ready for the scabs to use.

In fact the company, as it admits, “is built around a cornerstone 20‑year operational asset management contract… for London Fire Brigade”. Its profits shot up by £11 million last year.

We don’t know why the London fire bosses are so keen to throw cash at scab king Shannon and friends.

But we do know that Shannon has taken Tory fire authority boss Brian Coleman for a freebie dinner no fewer than four times: once at Green’s in London, and three times at Shepherds, near parliament.

The Evening Standard notes that at Shepherds, “Secluded nooks and crannies offer privacy to old-school Tories…”. They serve dishes like lobster, venison and the desert Eton mess.

And Coleman had a gourmet Christmas in 2008—Shannon sent him a £350 Harvey Nichols luxury hamper.

Download the motion to support the firefighters

Download the firefighters' open letter calling for escalation

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