The London firefighters’ strike ended at 6pm today (Saturday) – but the mass picketing didn’t. As the scabs tried to get the fire engines back into the bosses’ base, the firefighters hounded every last one of them, late into the night.
After a long day battling the scabs, succeeding in keeping them out of all London’s fire stations, the firefighters called one more mass picket, to begin as the strike came to an end.
At the picket’s peak more than 200 firefighters and supporters were gathered outside the fire brigade’s Southwark Training Centre in south London, where their FBU union had discovered the scabs would be returning the fire engines to.
The firefighters fought running battles with the scab fire engines – and with the police desperately trying to force them through the picket.
Again and again, the pickets ran into the road and surrounded the fire engines, banging on their windows and sides and bellowing “Scab! Scab!” No matter how many times the police shoved them back, they kept regrouping for another go.
The firefighters’ rage was boiling over: against their Tory boss Brian Coleman, with his threat to sack all 5,500 of them, and against Coleman’s attempt to use the private scab force to try to break their strike – putting Londoners’ lives at risk by using almost entirely untrained workers to do firefighters' vital jobs.
Several times the scared scabs stopped dead in the road when confronted by such militant resistance. Many of them, visibly shaken, decided to drive on past the depot and find somewhere to hide out for a while.
“You’re doing Coleman’s dirty work,” shouted one picket. “People will die because of you scum,” cried another. Others let fly a few slightly cruder insults.
“So this is the face of AssetCo,” called a picket as he shone his firefighter’s torch into a fire engine at one scab, referring to the private firm that employs the strikebreakers. “Get out of London!”
The scabs inside the training centre building added to the firefighters’ fury by frequently appearing at the window. And the pickets were further enraged when they spotted some of their managers laughing on the other side of the steel fence police had erected in front of the centre's entrance.
FBU general secretary Matt Wrack spoke to the crowd. He said, “We got told they were going to send AssetCo onto our fire stations – kick us out and put them in our place. And one thing we’ve shown today is they weren’t able to do it anywhere.”
His speech was frequently interrupted as groups broke off to chase after scabs. “I’ve got a message for all the people looking out of the windows out there,” Wrack continued. “Scab, scab, scab,” chanted the crowd towards the building.
Still facing the window, Wrack added, “Clear off out of London and don’t come back next week.” A massive cheer went up at this.
But the rank-and-file pickets were so militant that Wrack and the other union officials struggled to keep control of the situation.
At first the union officials asked the firefighters to stop pulling down ladders and messing with the fire engines’ machinery, as it was dangerous. The pickets mostly complied.
Then they asked the pickets to stay back from the fire engines, behind police lines, while Wrack went forward to “have a word” with those in the “scab cab”. Obedience here was much more patchy, with groups of firefighters continuing to run off down the road to chase the scabs.
Then finally the police threatened to begin arresting people. With the cops bringing in reinforcements and the pickets’ numbers beginning to dwindle, the union officials started telling the firefighters to disperse.
Ian Leahair, FBU executive member for London, spoke to the pickets. He said, “What we don’t want to do is end this with anybody getting arrested. It’s been a really good day.
“As far as we’ve concerned, for the Fire Brigades Union in London, this is a momentous occasion. It’s the first time for over 100 years that London firefighters have been on strike on their own.
“What we’re going to ask you to do now you might not like, because we’re all angry. We’re going to disperse now, and let the scabs come back in. And hopefully they’re going to learn their lesson and won’t be back. Let’s call it a day – well done everyone.”
Some of the pickets were on their way to leave after this, albeit slowly and reluctantly – until the police started letting a wave of scab fire engines through. Dozens of firefighters turned back to give chase once again, scattering in both directions down the road.
“Stop it!” one official repeated sternly through a megaphone. “It is time to disperse.”
“Disperse? Fuck dispersing!” screamed one picket in reply.
Some 15 minutes later, despite officials on megaphones demanding they “leave peacefully” and “call it a day”, a group of pickets still had a scab fire engine penned in further down the road.
And half an hour after being being told to disperse, many were still chanting “scab, scab, scab” and launching themselves at fire engines.
By this point union officials, including Wrack himself, were trying to physically pull firefighters away from the scab fire engines – to little avail.
It wasn’t until the police finally managed to force the last group of scabs through that the picket ended – and still one group of firefighters milled around outside nearby Southwark fire station, ready to heckle any that had slipped through the net.
One firefighter summed it up when he shouted, “No scab will ever get through here without a fight.” Come the London firefighters’ next strike on Monday 1 November, let’s hope that message is still ringing in the scabs’ ears.