THE RECALLED conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Brighton on Wednesday of last week overwhelmingly threw out a last minute offer from the employers. In doing so, firefighters stood up to the government and the media. The 241 conference delegates, representing 52,000 union members, also overturned their general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, and the majority of the FBU executive. The executive had recommended accepting the offer. There was loud applause and cheering when it was voted down.
Delegates left Brighton buoyed up and feeling some of the confidence that marked the beginning of the union's pay campaign last year. 'It is the first time since our leadership started calling off strikes during our dispute that the rank and file of the union has been able to assert itself,' said Dick Duane from the FBU in Essex.
'It is also the first time an FBU executive have been overturned on a major issue by the conference since 1977. Then delegates voted against the leadership to launch the last national pay fight.' What lay behind the revolt was not rancour and divisiveness, but a determination not to opt for abject surrender.
The vote was at least four to one to reject the leadership's call to accept the deal. This was fuelled by a sense that major opportunities have been thrown away.
Disillusionment with the leadership's strategy sank deeper the day after the conference. News broke that the leadership had ignored delegates' expectations by putting off any decision on action for four weeks. There is now a feeling at the base of union that the only result of FBU leaders calling off strike after strike has been to encourage the government and employers to stick the boot in.
The executive council of the FBU voted the night before the conference to call off a 24-hour strike that was to start on Thursday of last week. It also decided, by the same 12 to six vote, to recommend FBU members accept a new employers' offer handed to Andy Gilchrist that afternoon.
Delegates gathering the evening before the conference were shellshocked. Their bitter disappointment showed as they were called into regional meetings to be briefed by executive members. That grew to anger as they heard they would not be given a copy of the offer until the conference started the following morning.
Then the story spread that the core of the union's leadership had never intended to go through with the Thursday strike. It rapidly became clear that the 'new offer' was substantially the same as the one stations and brigades had overwhelmingly rejected after a week of union meetings.
It was worse than what the employers offered at the start of strikes last year and would hamstring the union. Some delegates, adamant they wouldn't be railroaded into acceptance, met up and planned how to carry the argument with others.
A special bulletin by Red Watch - the rank and file paper in the FBU - was produced. The following day delegates from three regions - Merseyside, Yorkshire and the South of England - formally told their executive members they had not represented members' views in voting for the offer.
The conference opened and delegates heard there would be no opportunity to submit emergency resolutions. There was uproar and a unanimous vote to allow new resolutions. There was relief when a resolution from the London region was passed saying, 'This recall conference of delegates from all brigades and sections of the Fire Brigades Union recommends in the strongest terms possible to the membership that they reject the employers latest 'final' offer.'
That call to throw out the offer is now being discussed in local union meetings in the run-up to a second special conference on 15 April. At the same time, FBU leaders are being drawn into backroom talks with the employers and the government.
They have issued no call to arms following John Prescott's move to introduce a new law allowing him to impose a settlement.
THE CONFERENCE took place behind closed doors. The debate revealed how FBU members don't want their conditions, their union and the fire service ripped apart in return for a measly pay award. Delegates were stunned when Andy Gilchrist argued that the deal was 'the best on offer in the public sector'.
'I expected him to say, with a heavy heart, that he thought it was all we could get in the circumstances,' said one delegate. 'I didn't think he would try and sell it as a good thing.' Andy Gilchrist admitted the deal would mean chief officers going on the offensive over job losses and attacks on conditions locally. He said that could be dealt with through local strikes and sectional union organisation.
Matt Wrack from London won applause when he pointed out that if it was right to fight and strike locally, why should delegates vote to abandon striking and fighting nationally? Other speakers showed the 'new deal' is almost identical to the one rejected by the executive the week before.
It talks of 'consultation' with staff, rather than agreement, when new conditions are introduced. It says there should be an 'objective of seeking consensus' when management come up with worse shifts, demands for overtime and flexible working. Management can always claim they have an 'objective of seeking consensus' and then impose attacks when 'the objective' is not met.
Where there is no consensus, the union can only declare a dispute if management agrees there is one! The rest of the deal gives a taste of the swingeing attacks the employers want to make. It restates that the only guaranteed pay increase will be 4 percent from last November.
The 16 percent over three years will only be for firefighters who take on more responsibilities. None of it will come unless the union signs up to everything, including diluting the national negotiating machinery. Hardly anyone in the conference spoke for the executive's position of recommendation.
A speaker from the Cleveland brigade seconded the executive's position. There was only one other resolution which went along with the leadership's line. West Midlands moved a resolution saying: 'This conference demands that following the executive council statement conference is adjourned to enable details of the new offer and the executive position to be relayed to the membership so that their views can be obtained prior to conference being reconvened.'
That would have meant abandoning the conference and pushing the executive's position to rank and file members. A speaker from Strathclyde seconded this resolution. It was roundly defeated. West Midlands is the brigade where leading FBU activist Steve Godward was sacked on charges arising from the strike last year.
The West Midlands delegation withdrew its resolution calling for such cases of victimisation to be covered by a return to work agreement negotiated as part of a final settlement.
Instead it submitted one to effectively cave in, with no attempt to get the employers to agree not to victimise people who went on strike.
'Don't let the government blackmail us'
THE CONFERENCE did not vote to give immediate seven-day notice of new strike dates. The FBU vice-president told the executive that his assessment was that the union was divided '50-50' over striking while British soldiers were at war. A meeting of activists the night before the conference dispelled that myth. People in direct contact with rank and file firefighters reported a clear majority for striking.
Andy Gilchrist told a national meeting of brigade officials two weeks before the conference that the union was prepared to strike, war or no war. At the conference he and the majority of the executive played up the minority who had concerns about striking during the war, in order to scupper calls for action and to sell the offer. Only three brigades out of a total of 58 submitted motions ruling out strikes during the war. They were not passed.
London delegates were surprised to hear rumours that their brigade, the biggest in the country, was '50-50' about strikes. The vote at the London delegation meeting was 12 to seven for strikes - as decisive as, but opposite to, the vote on the executive.
The seven said they were reflecting the concerns of a minority of members. That was true of the minority of delegates from other brigades who were against striking. Most people felt that this minority would follow the majority and strike if action was called.
'We had 12 percent of people vote against strikes in the original ballot back in September,' says Graham Tranquada from the East Anglia region.
'But the strikes were 100 percent solid. We had a victorious, solid strike in Essex a few years ago after a 58 to 42 percent vote to take action. The media will attack us whenever we strike, under whatever circumstances. We can't allow ourselves to be blackmailed because Blair has gone to war against the wishes of the majority of people in Britain.'
In ruling out strikes until 22 April the leadership of the FBU has given the impression that firefighters can be blackmailed. 'The five-week delay, following four weeks of fruitless talks, again increases the uncertainty of the least confident members,' says Adrian Clarke from the FBU in Cambridgeshire.
'It undermines the activists because the union hasn't got a position on where this dispute is going and how we can win.' At the start of this week activists were planning to call a national rank and file meeting to campaign against accepting the offer.
Winning systematic opposition to the offer means bolstering the mood to do something about it. Every firefighter knows that means further strikes. 'We have got to adopt a clear position against the offer and for strikes,' says Andy Brickles from the East Midlands. 'The problem isn't that striking hasn't worked. 'What hasn't worked is repeatedly calling strikes off.' 'This dispute has shown the need for rank and file organisation,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London and the editorial board of Red Watch.
'The deal is terrible. But there can be no complacency it will be rejected and people will rally behind strikes. Our leadership has shown it is prepared to accept the unacceptable. We are going to have to organise a serious rank and file campaign that reaches into every brigade. This is make or break. Even if the war is over by the recalled conference, there will be other excuses given for surrender - Prescott will impose it anyway, Blair is too strong, or whatever.
We've got a couple of weeks to create a force in the union to reject those arguments and build up rank and file confidence rather than sowing demoralisation.'
The new issue of Red Watch, the rank and file paper for firefighters, can be ordered from 07973 521 594 or 07939 021 094.