Socialist Worker

Fire strikers' mass pickets stop the scabs

by Tom Walker
Issue No. 2224

Pickets at Woodford Green (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Pickets at Woodford Green (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Striking London firefighters scored a huge victory against management's scabbing operation today (Saturday). Militant mass pickets all but destroyed bosses' operation to break the strike.

And, in a glimpse of what coordinated action could mean, many London tube workers refused to work on safety grounds during the strike, shutting down the entire Jubilee line for much of the day and causing major problems on other lines.

The strikers in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), walked out for eight hours from 10am this morning. They had voted by 79 percent to strikes over a management order to either sign new contracts with shifts that would put fire cover at risk, or face the sack.

The bosses bought in a scab fire force from private firm AssetCo to try to break the firefighters' strike.

But the scabs were kept out of all the capital's fire stations by mass pickets, including up to 400 in Poplar, where the picket was joined by firefighters who'd come from across Kent to support them, and 200 in Dagenham, with a big delegation from Essex FBU.

Graham Beers, FBU rep for Dagenham, told Socialist Worker, 'It was great to see the big groups turn up from Essex—the strikers walked out this morning to a big round of applause.

'This is the first time I've ever been on strike. Members of the public have come with boxes of chocolates and things like that. The support we've had has been incredible.'

There were also reports of pickets of as many as 50 firefighters at Homerton, Woodford Green and Shoreditch in east London and Kensington in west London, boosted by large groups of off-duty firefighters, and many more stations where pickets were much bigger than expected.

Delegations of firefighters also joined today's anti-cuts protest in central London. There, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told the crowd, 'AssetCo's scabs have not got into a single fire station today.

And he added, 'I have reports that two of the 27 fire engines they're using have already crashed.'

Firefighters listening in on the brigade's radios told Socialist Worker that one scab fire engine drove into a wall, while another managed to crash into a lamp post. Ironically, fire bosses have previously admitted that the scabs can't cover traffic accidents.

In the morning, most scabs didn't even dare show their faces at fire stations—and the few who did were quickly driven away.

The scabs were forced to find somewhere else to lurk until they got orders over the fire engines' radios.

In Leytonstone and Dagenham, they were found hiding out in Tesco car parks.

Graham, the Dagenham rep, said, 'When we found out they were in the car park, we sent a greeting party to go and see them and tell them what they're doing is wrong.'

At several other stations groups of firefighters set off in their cars to track scab fire engines that drove past.

In Poplar the pickets ran down the road after the scab engine, waving a huge FBU banner.

And in Kensington they twice managed to stop fire engines and confront the scab crews inside. After the second time, the scabs said they were giving up and taking the fire engine off duty.

Union activists believe that by 3pm there were as few as 11 of the scab crews left working, trying to cover the whole of London—and failing.

Public support

There was a high level of public support for firefighters on the picket lines.

Strikers at Hornsey Road fire station were joined by council workers, post workers, teachers, college lecturers and others from Islington trades council, as well as local students and left wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn told the strikers, 'This is my local fire station. This is about an employer trying to unilaterally change contracts—but it is part of a bigger agenda of cuts and job losses.'

Paul Carpen, FBU rep for Holloway, told Socialist Worker, 'This strike is about the mass sacking of firefighters. Their attitude is take it or go.'

Lucy, a firefighter, added, 'I spent sleepless nights deciding what to do. But we have no choice—if we don't stand up now they will come for us again and again.'

The bosses sent private security guards employed by Mitie to 'guard' the fire stations for the duration of the strike. But at Hornsey Road, the security guard told Socialist Worker, 'I support the strike—I'm here to guard the station if they leave, not to interfere. I work at Homerton hospital—we would strike if we were treated like they have been.'

At all the pickets, people in cars honked in support as they drove past and passers-by stopped to chat and take leaflets. The firefighters explained to them what their dispute was about.

At Homerton fire station, FBU rep Karl Haider said, 'We don't want to be on strike, but management need to withdraw the threat to sack us all. We have got to make a stand.'

At Woodford Green, FBU branch secretary Paul Davis said he was 'very pleased' with the turnout. But he was worried about the fire authority's attitude.

'The bosses' strike-cover plans in the advent of a chemical, biological or nuclear incident are completely inadequate,' he told Socialist Worker. 'They are putting Londoners' lives at risk.'

His concerns were echoed by firefighter Charlie. 'This dispute is about defending a vital public service.

'Look at the way the fire authority are using untrained staff as scabs today. That about sums up their attitude. They only care about budgets.

'But firefighters are totally united and committed to winning this battle—you can see that in the scale of our strike vote and the numbers on the picket line.

'Our attitude is, if we don't fight today, the service will be gone tomorrow.'

In North Kensington, firefighter Lee Homer said, 'This isn't about money—the bottom line is public safety. The fire authority says it's about a few hours' shift change, but we know it's really about cutting fire engines and closing fire stations.

'People are aiming their anger at the scabs—but they knew what they were coming into. I hope it makes them think twice. Playing with people's lives like this is just not on.'

Jack, also from Kensington, added, 'Today has been a victory for us. Now, if the fire authority don't back down, we'll have to escalate—step up the strikes and make it even more of a problem for them.'

Shutting down the Tube

The firefighters' next strike on Monday 1 November has the power to shut down London for the day, as tube workers plan to step up their refusals to work over safety.

One key tube activist told Socialist Worker, 'Today we were focusing on shutting down the Jubilee line—and we did that. So we've shown what we can do.

'The next strike will be on a weekday—and we will spread the action further.'

The firefighters today fired the opening shot in the battle against the Tories' massive cuts. Now everyone needs to get behind them—just like the tube workers are, and like many other workers did on the picket lines today.

With solidarity from across the movement, the firefighters can score a huge victory for all of us.

Thanks to everyone who sent in reports from the picket lines

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