THE TORIES and the government are using the cover of war to launch an attack on the firefighters which threatens the freedom of every worker in Britain. Tory defence spokesperson Bernard Jenkins, government ministers and the media are attempting to witch-hunt the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
A 24-hour strike had been called for Thursday this week but the FBU executive was meeting to discuss this as Socialist Worker went to press. There was speculation at the start of this week that this Labour government could use the Tories' 1992 anti-union law to ban the strike. The government has already launched a filthy smear campaign against the firefighters and their union.
It is accusing them of being 'unpatriotic' in pressing their long-running pay campaign during war on Iraq.
But as Paul Embury, a firefighter at Islington station, north London, says, 'This is the latest in a long list of attacks on us. The government talks about patriotism. But what is patriotic about sticking the boot into workers in the British fire service?'
Adrian Clarke, the secretary of the FBU in Cambridgeshire, is one of many firefighters who have been in the armed forces. He told Socialist Worker, 'I served aboard HMS Antelope during the Falklands War. 'On 23 May 1982 we were hit and the ship was sunk. I saw shipmates lose their lives, dying horribly. As a consequence of my own actions I received a personal recommendation for a gallantry award. I still have nightmares and the sights I saw will stay with me until my dying day. For the last 18 years I have served my community as a firefighter. I am utterly sickened by comments from politicians about us being 'friends of Saddam' or 'unpatriotic'. This is coming from people, including newspaper editors, who are always happy to send others - overwhelmingly working class - off to war but would never dream of risking themselves.
'The Tory Bernard Jenkins walked out of a radio debate with me. So much for his courage. Make no mistake about this, banning our strike or trying to intimidate us into abandoning our fight is a fundamental attack on human rights. This is supposed to be a war for democracy, yet they are starting with clamping down on democratic rights at home. If the trade union movement allows this to happen, it will mean giving up the right to strike back. It will let the employers and the government get away with any attack they want to make. And let's remember this war is wrong. I do not believe bombing innocent civilians is the way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. I speak as someone who knows the fear of waiting for the bombs to drop and hoping that they miss you, and feeling the guilt of surviving when others have not been so lucky. The government could have settled our pay claim at any time over the last six months and more. We should not be blackmailed by an illegal war into not fighting for what we deserve at home.'
The majority of firefighters oppose the war. Reports from station meetings and brigades show a clear majority behind striking on Thursday. The propaganda offensive against the firefighters is designed to create a minority against striking and use it, however small, to demoralise the rest. 'We need a clear lead,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London.
'There's no point offering more talks with the government, or suggesting we could shift our strike dates. 'That strategy has got us nowhere. It has led to the insulting offer put to us last week. The government, through the employers, made that offer knowing they were going to launch a war no matter what the United Nations decided. We've got to have the same sense of determination and planning. It is time to step up the strike action and for the rank and file to be put firmly at the centre of deciding the strategy to win. Where there are wobbles, it is because we have had a stop-go strategy for so long. People will rally together if there is a determined fight and the union goes flat out to win solidarity from other trade unionists.
'Any legal moves against us should be met with defiance from our union. Our leaders have repeatedly said we would break the law to defend our right to strike. And it should be met with solidarity strike action from the TUC.' A special conference of the FBU was to take place in Brighton on Wednesday of this week to discuss the pay campaign. Activists from a number of brigades and regions were to press for the union to go back onto the offensive. Firefighters need to feel a wave of solidarity from other trade unionists, who will face the same filth in the press if they have to strike during this war.