'IT'S A fight on two sides now, and everybody knows it. It's not just over pay. I've just seen Prescott on the TV and he's out to break our union and slash the UK fire service.' That's what Mark Barter from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Bedfordshire told Socialist Worker as firefighters and control staff launched their third strike on Tuesday.
It was a similar message from every station as 52,000 FBU members struck solidly. The strike was a defiant answer to the government. For thousands of FBU activists it was a chance to renew their long-running campaign. Reports from picket lines show it continues to enjoy popular support.
But FBU leaders planned talks with the employers this week and signalled that the strike could be enough to make sufficient gains through negotiations. The government, however, is insisting local authority employers make no concessions.
Instead ministers have told them to drive through the programme of cuts and longer working hours cooked up by Sir George Bain's sham review of the fire service. As firefighters took to the picket lines and set up street collections their feelings of bitterness with New Labour were deeper than ever.
'This Labour government has alienated the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of people who should be its natural supporters,' said John Drake from Gloucestershire FBU.
'They've lost that already, no matter what happens in our dispute. It's not just among FBU members here in Gloucestershire, which is hardly a hotbed of militancy. Hundreds of people have opted out of paying money to the Labour Party and many longstanding party members have resigned. Other trade unionists and working people share what we are going through. Quite simply people are shocked that the government is brazenly answering our call for decent pay with totally unacceptable demands for cuts.'
The heart-rending experience of tens of thousands of people on the other side of the globe has showed just what the Bain cuts could mean if they were implemented here.
Thousands of households had been evacuated from the Australian capital, Canberra, as fires raged out of control through the city's suburbs. The Australian government drove through Bain-style cuts and New Labour 'reforms' a few years ago.
The result is a fire service incapable of dealing with the fires now threatening thousands of homes. At the start of this week the Canberra authorities were reduced to calling on people evacuated from the most threatened areas to return to their homes to fight the fires themselves.
Imagine what would happen to the fire service here if the government gets away with axing 4,500 firefighters' posts and 150 stations.
No mood to retreat
THE FBU executive called Tuesday's strike after fire bosses, under government direction, effectively broke off negotiations and insisted that the union must 'unreservedly commit' to the Bain cuts package. On the executive council of the FBU there was reportedly 'no mood' for suspending this week's strike and two further 48-hour stoppages called for next Tuesday and Saturday.
That was a reflection of the determination of rank and file firefighters and union activists to hit back after strikes were suspended before Christmas in return for fruitless talks.
Prescott blusters about facing down the FBU, but his central strategy is to get strikes called off and then tie up union officials in negotiations. There were loud calls at a 100-strong meeting of FBU local officials on Friday of last week not to suspend strikes or to fall for Prescott's trap of 'talk, don't walk'.
Ian Foulkes from Merseyside told Socialist Worker after that meeting, 'We are in the fight of our lives. 'There's absolutely no reason why, if our national officials feel they have to go into talks, that we have to call off action. We have got to put the pressure back on the government and employers.' Mark Barter from Bedfordshire said as the strike began:
'The aim this week has to be to seize back the initiative from the government. When the union called off action before Christmas it was for talks that were supposed to last a week. That became two weeks and then three weeks and then we ended up with the Bain report. Prescott said nothing for weeks. Then he's suddenly all over the TV this week. It is because we are on strike. We've been on the defensive. We have to get back on the offensive. I'm hoping the executive maintain the tempo now. We've got the other two 48-hour strikes and they must go ahead unless the government seriously meets our claim. There was a loss of momentum. We've redoubled efforts in Bedfordshire to overcome that by making links with other groups of workers, particularly in the public sector. The mood to win is still there and a clear lead now can build it up. But we can't have the uncertainty of not knowing whether action is going to be on or off.'
The employers are divided over how hard a line to take. They reportedly dropped at the weekend their insistence that the union must 'unreservedly' sign up to Bain, and removed the headline figure on job cuts. That tiny concession is about getting FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist into talks (with strikes suspended) where those cuts will remain the employers' overriding aim.
The manoeuvres by the employers and Prescott do show they cannot simply ignore the strikes and fear further action. This can become a focus for solidarity from other trade unionists.
'The feeling at our mass meeting in Glasgow last week was that we should fight to win and that we can win,' said Kenny Ross from Strathclyde FBU. 'People do not want to retreat.'