Socialist Worker

Firefighters furious at 'tinpot tyrant' Prescott

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1837

FIREFIGHTERS ERUPTED in fury last week over the government's intervention in their pay dispute. The government hoped that by using the big stick of the law it would intimidate firefighters. But the effect was the precise opposite.

Firefighters and control room staff struck solidly for four days last week, and are now angrier than ever with New Labour. John McFadden, an FBU union rep from Castlemilk in Glasgow, told Socialist Worker, 'John Prescott has acted like a tinpot tyrant. He hands out dictatorial statements rather than engaging with the firefighters and the FBU. 'He is spitting on his past as someone who was respected by a layer of trade unionists. This is no longer simply an issue about the conditions and pay of firefighters. The whole union movement is in the frame, and it is a struggle for all.'

Ian Leahair, the FBU's east London area secretary, told Socialist Worker, 'I visited eight picket lines in Essex during the last strike, and the message was absolutely the same everywhere-people are furious with the government.

'New Labour has not done away with the Tories' anti-union laws. Now it seems it is ready to think up new ones to impose what they call 'modernisation'. The only way we are going to get any sort of decent and early settlement to this dispute is to maintain and strengthen the level of strikes. What the pickets actually say is, 'We're sick of fart-arsing around.'

'The other thing that everyone says is, 'How much money are we giving these bastards?' Nobody can understand why we keep giving money to New Labour when these ministers are trying to humiliate and defeat our union. This needs to be urgently discussed inside the union.'

There is deep support for the firefighters inside the working class. That could have been turned into active solidarity. John Murtagh from Clerkenwell station in London told Socialist Worker, 'I spoke to postal workers at Mount Pleasant last weekend. There was a really great atmosphere and a sense that this was a battle for everybody.

'As public sector workers who face their own battles over privatisation and job cuts, they were acutely aware that whatever happens in the firefighters' dispute will have big implications for everyone. They came up with good ideas about how to show solidarity.' Last week's strikes were completely solid.

On Tuesday of last week the chief fire officer in the West Midlands tried to claim that firefighters were 'drifting back to work'. He was then asked why fire appliances were not available.

In a desperate attempt to cover up his lies he called in non FBU members who have never been on strike during the dispute and who previously had been paid to sit at home during strike days. The Sun then said the strike was 'crumbling'!

In contrast to this fabrication, the real message came from a meeting of around 1,000 West Midlands FBU members who were as determined as ever.

The alternative to no strikes

FBU GENERAL secretary Andy Gilchrist told 5,000 firefighters and their supporters in Glasgow last Saturday, 'The truth of the matter is we have suspended strikes, we have been reasonable. But perhaps the time to be a little less reasonable is here. As long as firefighters and their representatives are treated with contempt, as long as we are not treated seriously, as long as we do not get the right to negotiate, there will be strikes and there will be more strikes.'

It would have been absolutely right to step up the action. FBU members were looking for ways to escalate the dispute and needed to be drawn into activity. FBU members must protest at their leaders' decision not to call strikes. They should not have been suspended unless there was a genuinely much better offer on the table which gave a decent pay rise, and did not insist on job cuts and 'modernisation'.

FBU Eastern Command Group 3 secretary Neale Williams told Socialist Worker, 'There are four steps that could have been taken immediately. Firstly we need more strikes. Secondly the FBU should write to every other union leader calling for support, and should also demand that the TUC calls a national day of action, including strikes. Thirdly we should have strong lobbies of Labour MPs. The planned lobby of fire minister Raynsford is a good model. Fourthly we should have another national demonstration to boost firefighters and act as a focus for solidarity.'

Rallies and protests

  • AROUND 400 firefighters and their supporters met for a rally in Bristol last weekend. They heard local trade unionists and Labour MPs Llew Smith and David Drew give support to the FBU.

    Amicus member Ger Hicks, who works at Rolls-Royce, won warm applause when he condemned Labour's treatment of the firefighters while at the same time there was limitless money available for war. He also warned about the dangers of being divided by the scapegoating of refugees.

  • HUNDREDS OF firefighters and their supporters joined a rally in the centre of Newcastle on Saturday.
  • A SUCCESSFUL motorcade toured the Oldham district on Saturday, visiting five stations in and around the north east of Greater Manchester.

    This was followed by a rally at the main Oldham station-Lees Road-attended by representatives of local trade unions, the Stop the War Coalition and the Socialist Alliance, as well as families and friends.

  • FIREFIGHTERS IN Cardiff pushed a Reliant Robin equipped with buckets and ladders into the city centre as a symbol of how the fire service will end up under the government plans.
  • THE SOUTH West Region of the FBU had called a campaign rally in Gloucester on Wednesday. George Galloway MP was among the planned speakers.

    Fight to defend Steve Godward

    AN APPEAL hearing which finished on Friday of last week demanded that Birmingham FBU activist Steve Godward resign from the fire service within seven days. In effect, this ruling amounts to a confirmation of Steve's sacking. He is being disciplined for comments that he is alleged to have made at a trade union meeting.

    Steve told Socialist Worker, 'This case is not about me, but is an attack on the Fire Brigades Union and our pay campaign. The appeal hearing had four New Labour councillors and three Tories. It voted by four to three for me to go, so that means one Labour councillor must have voted with the Tories. There is a political element to do with the FBU dispute,' says Steve.

    'Plus everyone in this case knows that I stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate at the last general election. We face a very aggressive West Midlands management, and it is important nationally that they do not succeed. As a socialist and an FBU activist I hope everyone will join the campaign to see the charges dropped.'

    A strike ballot over Steve's case is expected shortly, following a big campaign to explain the issues involved to FBU members.

  • A STRIKE ballot will begin soon over the case of Basingstoke FBU activist Simon Green. His case is an example of implementing the goverment's Bain review through the back door.

    Simon was sacked over capability procedures, a foretaste of the tests and assessment which every firefighter will go through if the Bain review is pushed through.

  • THERE IS good news about Bob Pounder, who had been suspended by the union from his position after speaking out against firefighters' strikes being called off. After pressure from many FBU members, Bob has been reinstated. Bob writes, 'From this Monday I resumed my duties as the brigade secretary for Greater Manchester. There will be no disciplinary hearing. I wish to thank every member of the FBU, other trade unionists and all other comrades who have given their support to my reinstatement. I look forward now to continuing with that work. On the basis of our existing policy-'£30k with no strings!' -we can go forward to win this dispute. Of that I have no doubt. Thanks a million for your support.'

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    Article information

    Sat 8 Feb 2003, 00:00 GMT
    Issue No. 1837
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