THE government's vendetta against the firefighters was poised to come to a head at the end of this week. Labour ministers told fire authority employers to table demands for swingeing cuts and worse working conditions on Thursday after weeks of talks with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
Speaking at a solidarity conference in London on Saturday of last week, FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said, 'This is a crucial week for our pay campaign. The employers are to table an offer which, from what we have seen so far, is likely to fall well short of what could settle the dispute. We are now in a battle to defend jobs, national conditions of service and national negotiating rights. The employers have been calling for localised and flexible pay. They want to break national standards of fire cover. Funding a pay rise through job losses and cuts is just not acceptable.'
At the start of this week the employers, largely Labour-controlled fire authorities, were still insisting on keeping a 42-hour week and forcing firefighters and control staff to work overtime to make ends meet.
Next Monday the government is due to table a change in the law to make it easier to close fire stations. It wants to remove the requirement for government ministers to review requests for station closures. That, together with a resurgent propaganda campaign against the firefighters, adds up to a policy of confrontation.
'There is no mood to duck a confrontation,' said Neale Williams, an FBU secretary in London, at last Saturday's conference. 'We will need further strikes to win. And there should be no delay in calling them if Thursday's offer is as bad as we expect. The government is weak and divided.'
The FBU national executive was to meet on Thursday to discuss the offer. A national meeting of reps was to hear their leaders' response on Friday. Activists were to demand that strikes are called at the end of this week rather than delaying any decision until a pencilled-in special union conference on 19 March.
The lesson of the last four months of the firefighters' campaign is that suspending strikes or delays in calling action have only encouraged the government to go on the offensive. Strikes now would be a body blow to Blair's shaky government.