THE FIRE brigade employers showed at the start of this week that they have little intention of seeking compromise with firefighters and control room staff. The employers reneged on a promise to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) that they would extend the legal deadline for calling strikes while talks take place. They retreated on Monday.
But their initial demand showed how contemptuous they are of the FBU, whose executive decided not to call more strike days last week and to enter negotiations instead. It also confirms the feeling among FBU activists that it was a mistake not to call more strikes.
Two dates were already pencilled in, including a 39-hour strike coinciding with this Saturday's anti-war demonstration. 'There was genuine shock when we found out that there were to be no more strikes and, instead, four weeks of talks,' says Ian Foulkes from the FBU on Merseyside. 'I've a horrible feeling that this is now reaching an endgame, with a deal that will not be acceptable to our members. There's no doubt that the government was forced to step back last week. Prescott threatened to punish us for taking action and to change the law to impose a settlement. Then we struck for 48 hours over the weekend and the atmosphere on picket lines was more determined than ever. So he had to offer talks. That's a concession. But the great danger now is that we lose that concession by making concessions of our own. Putting the action back on is the way to avoid that. It's clear that with the coming war the government is not really up for a fight against us at the same time.'
The feeling is similar across Britain and Northern Ireland. Linda Smith from the FBU in London says, 'Our regional committee was not very happy about the decision not to call further strikes. My experience throughout this dispute has been that whenever we suspend or cancel strikes it is interpreted by the government and the employers as a sign of weakness. If you look at the memorandum from Prescott's office outlining the remit for the talks, you'll see there is just one mention of pay. The rest refers to discussions on so called modernisation.
'But we started out with a campaign over pay not linked to attacks on working conditions. We should stick with that. The government is clear that nothing has changed regarding their hardline position. And fire chiefs are already looking to push through the kind of cuts and attacks outlined in the Bain report. When we raise issues around conditions the fire HQ in London is saying we have to wait for the implementation of the Bain proposals. Our members in London are so angry that they are working to rule-refusing to do anything outside of their core contract. So there is, for example, no acting up to cover for unfilled posts. That is having an impact. Fifteen appliances were off the run last week. Our members are prepared to take action and it's action that is needed to win. It's vital for building the solidarity that is crucial to winning this dispute. It's hard to build the support groups and raise solidarity from other unions if you are not on strike or have no strike dates.'
Talks are scheduled to last four weeks. The FBU executive was to meet this Wednesday and weekly to 'review progress'.
A meeting of FBU brigade reps is due to take place on Friday of next week. There will be strong calls there for reinstating strike dates. Many activists know that the dispute is now at a crucial turning point. The government was desperate last week to avoid further strikes.
It especially feared strikes this week as it faced both a mass anti-war demonstration and an outcry over Lord Irvine's grotesque pay rise, while millions of public sector workers face a freeze.
There were press rumours again last weekend that the government could use emergency powers to ban fire strikes during war in the Gulf. But similar threats have evaporated when firefighters have faced them down and taken action.
And they have contributed to a deepening rift between trade unionists and the government. There is still everything to play for in the dispute. But it will require concerted pressure from activists and the rank and file of the FBU to get the kind of action that can throw the government onto the defensive.
THE LONDON region of the FBU has called an important solidarity conference for Saturday 1 March. It can be a focus not only for tapping support from the wider trade union movement but also for galvanising FBU members.
A national recalled conference of the FBU is pencilled in for 19 March. If there is a deal coming out of these talks it will be put to that meeting. It is vital that rank and file union members, who have driven this dispute forward, determine whether a deal is acceptable or not.
Speakers at the London solidarity conference include FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants' PCS union. There will be a discussion about defending public services.
And half the conference will be given over to discussing the 'future of trade union politics', including debates on the link between the unions and the Labour Party.
THE CAMPAIGN to win reinstatement for sacked West Midlands FBU activist Steve Godwood is gathering pace. An activists' meeting is scheduled for Monday of next week. In a sickening move Steve was told last week that his son would be kicked out of the nursery run by the local authority.
'Because I've been sacked, they want to sack him,' says Steve. 'He was three on Saturday, and was supposed to celebrate his birthday with his friends at nursery and then lose his place there on Monday. We've managed to put a stop to that for a month. But it's an indication of how low they will go. I haven't exhausted the appeals process yet.'
Activists are putting Steve's case to members across the brigade. Steve says, 'The more people find out about what happened, the more they support me. We are building support for a ballot for action which the executive committee nationally will consider.'