Trade unionists from across London pledged their solidarity with the city’s striking firefighters this evening (Thursday) – and called on the whole workers’ movement to do the same.
The more than 50 key union reps and campaigners at the meeting were clear that everyone’s priority in the coming days and weeks must be to raise solidarity with the firefighters, whether it’s collections, picket line visits, or more radical action.
The meeting also discussed the potential for workers to legally refuse to work during the strikes on safety grounds, since there will be no adequate fire cover in London.
RMT London regional organiser Steve Hedley told the meeting that many London tube workers refused to work during the firefighters’ strikes on Saturday.
“On the Jubilee line and the Piccadilly line people refused to take trains out on the grounds of health and safety,” he said. “The Jubilee line was closed fully for the whole day.
“I’m certainly not encouraging any secondary action. But I’m quite sure that lots of RMT members will take an individual decision that they’re in serious and imminent danger during the next firefighters’ strikes as well.”
FBU president Mick Shaw went further, saying others could follow the tube workers’ example.
“Imagine if that sort of thing could spread to petrol tanker drivers for instance, who will obviously face an increased fire risk,” he said.
“So will oil refinery workers – think of the Buncefield disaster. Or airport workers – they’ll face increased risks.
“If that sort of thinking was to spread, imagine the impact it could have.”
He added, “If we have what would now be a high-profile defeat it would be a defeat for the whole movement. But if we have a victory it will be a victory for the whole movement.
“And that will give other groups of workers confidence to take on the battles they face.”
Tony Phillips is the branch secretary of the Unison union at the London fire authority (LFEPA). He told the meeting that many of the 1,000 support workers at the fire authority were already refusing to assist the bosses’ scabbing operation.
“Our members are coming under a lot of pressure to undermine the firefighters’ action,” he said. “Today our protective equipment workers were put under pressure to deliver breathing apparatus to Ruislip, where some of the scabbing operation is based.
“But they’ve said: up yours, we’re not doing it, we’re not doing anything to undermine the firefighters.”
The meeting was organised by the south east and eastern region of the TUC (SERTUC) and held at the TUC’s London headquarters.
Speaker after speaker called for the maximum level of collections and delegations to the firefighters’ picket lines during their next strikes.
The meeting itself raised a collection of over £200 – with many more promises of donations from union branches.
Left wing Labour MP John McDonnell addressed the meeting. He offered full support to the FBU in the face of the onslaught on the firefighters from the Tories and the right wing press.
“You have to be driven to the edge to strike if you’re a firefighter,” he said. “They do not strike lightly.
“Every public meeting we have in the movement now, we should have an FBU speaker explaining their case.
“I’d expect us all now to be on the picket lines on Monday and applaud the FBU as they come out.”
Weyman Bennett, joint secretary of Unite Against Fascism, pointed out that the FBU would be central to the group’s protest against racism on 6 November in London – a date that now falls on one of the firefighters’ strike days.
He said, “At the front of that demonstration is going to be the FBU banner and firefighters marching behind it. And that’s important.
“The FBU has been at the forefront of every single anti-racist struggle.
“Every time somebody attacks us they try to divide and rule. We have to stand up to that.”
And Michael Bradley of the Right to Work campaign said the firefighters’ strikes could be the beginning of French-style resistance.
“There’s nothing different in the water in France,” he told the meeting. “On Saturday over 50,000 people took part in demonstrations in this country.
“This is the beginning. If our side can win one now it can give confidence to everybody.”
Ian Leahair, FBU executive member for London, made an appeal for donations, as bosses have been heavily docking firefighters’ pay over their ongoing action short of a strike.
He said that the union’s hardship fund has already paid out in excess of £60,000.
But he vowed: “I tell you this now: the Fire Brigades Union in London will not be defeated. As much as they want to intimidate us and bully us, we will escalate this even further.
“And unless they remove the threat to sack our members, we will not call off the strikes on Bonfire Night.”
Details of the hardship fund: http://www.fbu.org.uk/newspress/circulars/cir2010/hoc0668mw.php