THE BIGGEST industrial dispute under Blair has burst into flames again just as he is hammered by events in Iraq. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference this week voted to withdraw immediately from implementing the "modernisation" package that forms the settlement for last year's pay fight. The union is now reinstating a ban on overtime, abandoned as part of that deal.
Delegates also voted to move to a ballot for industrial action. The defiant step is a reaction to the government and fire authority employers refusing to give a 3.5 percent pay rise, promised for November last year, unless the FBU concedes every demand for longer working hours and worse conditions.
FBU leaders have given way over one attack after another since the deal was signed, but now the government and employers are insisting that firefighters be made to work on gimmick schemes when they are supposed to be resting on night shift.
The viciousness of Labour's offensive, and rising bitterness among rank and file firefighters, has left FBU leaders with no option but to say they will resist that specific attack. But they are arguing only for a change of wording and want to return to agreeing the wider modernisation deal.
They further blunted resistance by getting delegates to adjourn the conference until June. That meant denying delegates the chance to agree, before the 10 June elections, a policy of backing left wing candidates-such as those from Respect-against New Labour.
The clamour to break Labour's monopoly hold on the FBU's political fund has grown even louder since last year's strike. It is so strong that FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist felt forced to bring to the conference a proposal to follow the RMT union in opening up its political fund to forces to the left of Labour.
There is no doubt the FBU conference would have voted to change its political fund. Indeed, FBU leaders feared it would break entirely with Labour. But delegates were swayed by the argument that they must stop the conference immediately and get back to the members.
Delegates from London, Merseyside, Northern Ireland and other brigades argued that not acting on members' bitterness with Labour undermined attempts to raise their confidence to fight its attacks.
"We need to explaining why our leadership buckled and why putting faith in the Labour link undermines us," says Neale Williams, editor of Red Watch, the rank and file paper. Linda Smith from the FBU London region, a Respect candidate in the elections, said, "The harder we hit Blair at the election, the stronger FBU members will be in resisting the employers and the government."