Socialist Worker

Ben Sprung and Neale Williams debate Socialist Worker's coverage of the fire dispute

In order to encourage debate and clarity Socialist Worker has opened its pages to Ben Sprung, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) Camden borough rep and FBU regional organiser in London, who replies to our recent analysis of the end of the strikes – and Neal

Issue No. 2230

Ben Sprung: Socialist Worker is outlandish and wrong

In defence of the FBU:

Your coverage of the London firefighters’ dispute has angered FBU activists.


Your reports of the first strike on 23 October were outlandish. You wrote (Socialist Worker, 23 October) that “the rank-and-file pickets were so militant that [FBU general secretary Matt] Wrack and the other union officials struggled to keep control of the situation”.

It might fit your preconceived schema to paint Wrack as a typical trade union bureaucrat, but those of us actually present saw the union’s general secretary fully supporting the picketing.

No doubt fantasising that you were witnessing the French Revolution, you then posted a video which was then carried by the BBC and other news outlets and used to discredit the union.

You should realise that in a real struggle, it pays to think about the tone and content of reporting.

Bonfire night:

Your reports on the bonfire night strikes show you neither understand the decision taken by the FBU’s London committee nor have an alternative strategy for FBU members.

The strikes were cancelled because management moved on the key issue in the dispute—the threat to sack 5,500 firefighters by 18 November.

Management agreed not to impose new contracts as they had planned, but to postpone that decision until late January.

That movement, together with their offer of 11-13 without strings was sufficient to suspend the strike action.

Your report (4 November) registered that management had made “concessions”.

Nevertheless it stated that the decision was a mistake because the union had “missed a key opportunity to stretch the private AssetCo scabbing operation beyond breaking point”.

What do you mean by this? Have some people to die on bonfire night to “prove” the scabs are rubbish?

We didn’t believe the public would thank us for making AssetCo the new objective of the action, when we had significant movement on the main issues.

Criticism within the labour movement is fine. But using the bourgeois press to attack a union is quite another.

Yet Richard Seymour, a well-known Socialist Workers Party member, used the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 5 November to slate the FBU.

He wrote, “Suspending the strike now will give the fire bosses time to regroup, get better organised and perhaps return to its previous belligerent form with a stronger hand.”

We don’t know whether Seymour is a trade unionist, but he certainly never bothered to speak to the FBU before launching his attack.

Rank and file:

Then Brother Yusuf Timms (Socialist Worker, 13 November) claimed that the “key lesson” was that “a rank and file organisation of even limited numbers could have played a huge role in developing a different strategy and winning”.

Nowhere does Socialist Worker outline an alternative strategy. But worse, you disparage the democratic structures of the FBU.

The FBU London regional committee is a lay representative body, with reps from all London boroughs. It voted 19 to three to call off the strikes. The decision was endorsed by a meeting of reps from all London FBU workplaces.

You may wish to present the decision as the bureaucracy versus the rank and file.

The reality is that the union decided its strategy democratically and has the overwhelming support of its members.

You should make those facts clear when you claim to support our dispute.

Neale Williams: FBU leaders were wrong to call off action

Socialist Worker readers have been at the forefront of organising solidarity with our strikes, closing down parts of the London tube network and bringing workers’ delegations with collections to our picket lines.

Moreover, as mainstream press and politicians lined up to condemn the FBU’s strikes as “reckless and dangerous” Socialist Worker defended our union. It condemned the bosses and the government for mounting the attacks that forces firefighters to strike.

What a pity then that Ben chooses to attack Socialist Worker for defending the strike action he and the rest of the FBU leadership called on 5 November.

In criticising Socialist Worker’s support for going ahead with this action, Ben suggests that arguing for the strike to go ahead equals wanting people to die.

In doing so, Ben echoes the criticisms made by the right wing media when we announced the action.

There is nothing “outlandish” about Socialist Worker’s support for our union or its criticism of our leaders.

Indeed FBU members I work with are also criticising our union leaders and a cursory look at Facebook and Twitter reveals there are more who are equally angry at the decision to call off the strikes.

This isn’t because as Ben states we don’t “understand” the reasons why, but because some of us believe strikes could have won more than a compromise on the bosses’ terms.

The truth is the only effective weapon we have as workers is collective industrial action.

Our union leaders understood this when they turned down the bosses’ first offer to go to arbitration and called strikes instead.

Socialist Worker supported this stance, demonstrating the paper’s coverage and criticism is far from the crude caricature Ben paints.

But it stands in the revolutionary socialist tradition of supporting union leaders when they lead fights while calling on union members to build rank and file organisation that is capable of acting independently if they don’t.

Calling off strikes for the RAP arbitration process that has resulted in our union leaders recommending we accept worse shifts has left FBU members feeling badly let down.


Of course, some members are relieved that the bosses’ aggression that led to firefighters and union officials being run over on picket lines might be over.

But others are angry that the potential to defeat the scabbing operation over the bonfire weekend and the momentum our strike was building has been thrown away.

Either way it’s clear that calling off action will not stop the bosses’ attacks.

This is shown by the vindictive suspension of FBU activist Sian Griffiths and by the bosses’ refusal to return the 27 fire appliances handed over to the scabs, which they’re now planning to cut completely.

And bosses have not fully withdrawn their threats to sack us—only postponed them.

Our union was right to argue that the attack on shifts is linked to cuts in our service. Socialist Worker has supported this argument throughout.

But Socialist Worker is also right to point out the danger of calling off strikes when the bosses show no signs of letting up their attacks on us.

Even those FBU members who are relieved that action has been called off will not want to see our jobs and service cut.

Therefore, the potential remains for future strikes to defend our union.

More and longer strikes, occupations of stations to stop the scabs getting in and independent rank and file organisation is the alternative strategy Socialist Worker and its supporters have argued for.

The RAP decision, and the bosses’ continued attacks, prove that talks are no substitute for this.

Neale Williams is the FBU branch chair at Southwark TC. He writes in a personal capacity.

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Tue 30 Nov 2010, 18:17 GMT
Issue No. 2230
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