FIREFIGHTERS' union leaders decided on Tuesday not to call any further strikes in order to get talks going with the employers and the government. The decision is a serious mistake. The employers have not ditched the Bain review. They have not dropped their agenda of 4,500 job losses, 'modernisation' and station closures.
All they have done is to say that the FBU union does not have to sign up to these elements before the talking starts. The employers and the government will certainly want to press ahead with such attacks before a final settlement is agreed. The FBU leaders this week should have timetabled more, harder-hitting action. They should have done everything possible to restore the momentum to the firefighters' campaign and appealed strongly for wider solidarity.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said last weekend that there would be more action unless firefighters were treated with respect. This has not happened. The strikes were not crumbling. The two strikes last week were solid and firefighters more determined. The government could have been beaten. It was nervous about more strikes during its planned war on Iraq.
That's why deputy prime minister John Prescott jumped from launching legal assaults last week to calling the FBU into negotiations this week. The negotiations should not disguise what Prescott was threatening the firefighters with. He threatened to introduce emergency legislation restoring a power axed 44 years ago. This would allow him to impose pay and conditions across the fire service. Prescott was saying he would abolish collective bargaining with the union. This is an open declaration of war on organised workers.
The next blow came from the attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith (basic salary £93,000). He said that firefighters could be banned from striking as soon as any military action began against Iraq. A war would be a 'material change in circumstances' allowing the attorney-general to seek an injunction halting action. This would have cleared the way to sending FBU leaders to jail.
This is from a government which a few weeks ago was complaining that the firefighters had made their strike political! Over the last six years New Labour has refused to restore workers' rights that the Tories took away. Last week was a new low-the prospect of extra anti-union laws beyond even those the Tories dreamt up.
The government assault should have been met by a massive show of solidarity with the firefighters from the whole trade union movement. The mood was there-if the union leaders had tapped it. One example of the feeling was the motion passed by the RMT rail workers' union London Transport Regional Committee. It unanimously deplored the government's attacks and called on the TUC to organise general strike action.
In January 1984 when the Tories banned trade unions at the GCHQ spy centre, TUC head Len Murray stormed out of a meeting with Margaret Thatcher and called for a national union response. The next month around one million held token one-hour stoppages against the ban. Twenty years later the TUC is far more timid than Murray-who was no revolutionary.
Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary elect, said he was 'deeply concerned that this dispute is becoming increasingly polarised', but he offered no concrete solidarity with the FBU. Instead all the TUC's efforts were bent towards fixing a deal at almost any price.
As war looms a serious trade union revolt would win support from the millions who want to see Blair humbled. Every trade unionist must pressure their union leaders for action if Prescott resumes these attacks.
Assault must mean no union cash for Blair
THE POLITICAL fallout from the government's legal assault on the firefighters is immense. It is an example which symbolises so much of New Labour's attitude towards the unions-arrogant, bullying, contemptuous of working people fighting for a better life. This bungling, overbearing use of anti-union laws will quite rightly be quoted at every union conference held this year when it comes to a discussion of how the unions should spend their political fund. There should not be a penny for New Labour, which has bludgeoned the unions. The money should go to parties and organisations which backed the firefighters and which stand up for workers' rights.
Thousands of firefighters have already withdrawn from the part of the political fund which goes to the Labour Party. But the aftershocks are not just felt in the FBU. Mick Rix, the leader of the Aslef train drivers' union, delivered a vote of no confidence in both Tony Blair and John Prescott after the new legal moves were announced.
'We have to start to say that Tony's leadership is becoming a failure. He is creating divisions among the labour movement, and it is probably time for Tony to go,' said Mick Rix.
He went on to attack John Prescott: 'I would never have thought a Labour deputy prime minister, especially with the background he's come from, would utter the words he did. John Prescott has just about severed all the friendships he had left with people in the trade union movement. I don't see anybody giving him one ounce of credibility. If John had anything about him he should have resigned rather than make the statement he did. But I don't think he has the guts to do that. It is outrageous to intervene to impose a settlement when all he has done is intervene to block one.'