Leaders of Fire Brigades Union (FBU) last week called off a two-day strike in London that would take in Bonfire Night. Socialist Worker believes this was wrong.
The fight against mass sackings to force through worse shifts saw London FBU members stage two eight-hour strikes. Yusuf Timms, a London firefighter and FBU borough secretary in Kensington and Chelsea (pc), writes below.
You can pinpoint the moment the London firefighters took a leap forward to a few minutes after 10am, on the Saturday of our first strike last month.
Minutes earlier the mood had been determined but apprehensive. We knew the scabs were coming.
Many of us had spent the week trying to build mass pickets, but none were certain they would be effective.
As the strike officially started at 10am, though, there was no sign of the scabs.
Frantic messages went out: “You got any at your place?” “Have you seen them?” All met with the same answer: “No.”
The bosses had not had the confidence to confront our pickets. The scabs they had boasted of were hiding down back alleys. Anxiety turned to energetic militancy. The rank and file, on its own initiative, went on the offensive. Fire engines were tracked down and scab crews confronted.
And that evening firefighters from all over London headed to the brigade’s training centre in Southwark, to “welcome” the scab trucks back in.
People who had been nervous about striking were now berating the union for only calling an eight hour walkout.
Up until that Saturday, the union bureaucracy, while understanding they had to push the campaign forward, had pandered to the weakest sections. But now we were actually on strike, the most militant elements were able to take the lead and inspire the majority to follow.
Thus far, those of us arguing for longer strikes had failed to even win 24 hours. But after the first strike, the FBU’s London regional committee had the confidence to call a 47-hour strike, starting on 5 November.
Our second strike, eight hours on Monday 1 November, had a slightly different character. Persecution from the right wing press, aided by brigade bosses, and a heavier police presence, had a dampening effect.
This time the bosses concentrated their forces on seven or eight stations, using the police to clear pickets.
But, again, mass pickets at Shoreditch, Wembley, East Ham and other stations succeeded in turning away the scabs, despite the police.
Even where they had got in, such as at Hillingdon, they were assured an uncomfortable stay—and were unable to get back in once they left to attend a call. The two strikes severely dented bosses’ confidence in the scabbing operation.
So they made a concession. At present we work a 15-hour night shift and nine hour day shift. The bosses wanted 12 and 12, which would let them cut night cover.
Now they offered an 11‑hour day and 13-hour night shift—with no strings.
The combination of this offer, together with the media pressure, the attitude of the national union leadership in the form of Matt Wrack and Andy Dark, coupled with concerns with how the weekend would go when no clear strategy had been devised, meant the London regional committee voted to go to arbitration.
While the arbitration is not binding, it is unlikely the strikes will be put back on.
The momentum generated by the strikes has been lost, and for this reason it was a mistake to call them off.
Had we gone ahead, and again held mass pickets, there was a good chance we could have finished off the scabbing operation and forced the bosses to back off. Now they are on the offensive again over cuts to the number of engines.
But the employers have not got the 12-hour shifts they wanted, and the union has emerged more confident in its ability to resist further attacks.
For these reasons the outcome could perhaps be called a draw.
But the union missed the opportunity for outright victory.
The key lesson is that a rank and file organisation of even limited numbers could have played a huge role in developing a different strategy and winning.
This is the urgent task that now confronts us.
For more on what we think on the fire dispute go to page 11 XXXXXXX
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