Socialist Worker

The case for the firefighters

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1834

FOUR AND a half thousand job losses. Over 150 fire stations to close. Less fire cover at the times people are most likely to be killed by fires. Intolerable working hours and a broken trade union. That is what the government is demanding firefighters accept after their union has bent over backwards to seek compromise over their pay claim. The responsibility for renewed strikes by 52,000 firefighters and control room staff lies squarely with New Labour.

It has forced the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to call fresh strikes, beginning with a 24-hour walkout next Tuesday at 9am. New Labour's aim is clear-to humiliate a popular group of public sector workers in order to frighten off anyone else from standing up against low pay, privatisation and cuts.

It is demanding firefighters accept these attacks in return for a 4 percent pay increase this year. There would be a further 7 percent in November, but only for some firefighters deemed to have acquired extra skills. That's why every single trade unionist and worker should get behind the firefighters. That starts with rejecting the lies of Blair's spin machine.

LIE ONE: The FBU has rejected a negotiated settlement. DEPUTY PRIME minister John Prescott told FBU leaders last week that his demands for cuts to the fire service (outlined in the inquiry chaired by Sir George Bain) were 'non-negotiable'.

The employers said at the start of this week that there could be no negotiation over 4,500 job losses and other cuts.

FBU leaders have called off four strikes over the last two months, often against the wishes of many union activists, in order to pursue negotiations. At each stage the government has demanded more concessions. It has intervened four times to prevent a settlement between the union and the employers.

John Prescott has made it clear that he is willing to push cuts through no matter what the employers and the union decide.

LIE TWO: The firefighters should accept the independent Bain inquiry. THE BAIN inquiry was not independent. It accepted government spending limits when it came up with proposals for job losses, worse pensions, reduced fire cover and forcing the public to pay extra, through insurance premiums, for fire cover.

Inquiry member Sir Tony Young told FBU leaders that Bain's report would not be acceptable to them before it had started to take evidence. The government refused to publish for a whole year the Pathfinder Report into the fire service, which it commissioned. This said there should be an increase in the number of firefighters and in the fire service budget.

LIE THREE: The firefighters are being greedy. FIREFIGHTERS ARE paid £21,533 a year. They work a 42-hour week. MPs get £55,118 a year. Cabinet ministers are on £124,979 a year. The government and the press try to use low pay in other areas as an excuse for poor pay in the fire service.

They say nurses and ambulance workers are worse paid than firefighters. That's true. But none of those groups will gain if the firefighters lose. They will be more likely to win significant pay increases if the firefighters are able to break New Labour's unofficial wage curbs. The government understands this. Tony Blair said at the end of last year that conceding to the firefighters' £30,000 pay claim would 'unleash the floodgates' across the public sector.

The money is there to pay for public services and better wages for those who work in them. New Labour has just increased spending on the military by £2 billion every year (with an open cheque book to cover any additional costs from attacking Iraq). Putting the top rate of income tax back where it was under Margaret Thatcher would bring in £19 billion. Restoring the rate of corporation tax on big business to 35 percent would bring in £10 billion every year.

That is more than enough money to increase pay substantially for firefighters, and nurses, health workers, classroom assistants, paramedics and every other group of public sector workers.

LIE FOUR: The firefighters are being led by political dogma into an unnecessary fight with the government. IT IS New Labour that has picked a fight with the firefighters. Scandalously it insists that the FBU continues to hand over money to Labour for the privilege of being harangued in the media.

The government has decided to take a hard line with the trade unions while loving up to big business. It says 'modernisation' means opening up public services to profit-grabbing companies.

It wants longer working hours in the name of 'family friendly policies'. It wants to cover up for the run-down of the ambulance service by getting firefighters to do the job of paramedics, without the three years necessary training.

It wants job cuts and greater pressure on staff by merging ambulance and fire control rooms. All of these are political decisions to put the profits of big business above the lives of millions of ordinary people.

FBU members in their overwhelming majority voted to get the Tories out. They have every right to ask why a Labour government is choosing to treat them as Thatcher did the miners.

The government's assault on the FBU is so extreme that the TUC's John Monks and Brendan Barber, normally loyal to the Labour leadership, are reportedly not on speaking terms with John Prescott. More is needed.

The TUC and every union leader should stop worrying about how to come up with a rotten compromise and instead start organising action to back the firefighters.

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Sat 18 Jan 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1834
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