DEPUTY PRIME minister John Prescott has thrown down the gauntlet to every trade union by moving to impose a terrible pay offer on 55,000 firefighters and control staff. He announced the introduction of legislation to allow him to do that on Thursday of last week, just hours after bombs started raining on Baghdad. The following day he published the bill in parliament.
It also makes it easier for local fire chiefs to make cuts by removing the requirement for central government to agree to station closures. This Labour government is using the cover of war to launch a fundamental attack on union rights.
The day before Prescott's announcement, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members at a special conference defied government attempts to blackmail them into accepting an offer that would spell major defeat for the union. They overturned FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist and the majority of the union's executive, and voted to recommend rank and file members reject the employers' latest offer.
But the following morning FBU leaders spurned that show of determination. Instead they gave the government the breathing space that allowed Prescott to go on the offensive.
FBU leaders said there would be no further strikes until 22 April, seven days after another special conference. Delegates at last week's conference had been led to believe they would be meeting again next Wednesday and would be able to call action from there. Delaying the conference for a further two weeks - in the hope the war will be over - predictably brought no sympathy from the media. But it encouraged Prescott to launch the most serious assault on a union since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
'Last Wednesday saw the resilience of our members,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London. Last Thursday morning showed the terrible vacillation of our leadership. That afternoon we saw the viciousness of the Labour government. 'Our whole dispute, and our union, are at a crossroads. The rank and file anger shown at last week's conference needs to come to the fore now. If it does not, our leaders will end up taking us into an appalling defeat. Determined strike action, which we follow through on, needs to be called now.'
Not prepared to surrender
Prescott's new legislation will effectively remove national bargaining over pay and conditions for firefighters, leaving the government free to impose any offer on both employers and the union. He has suggested the new law will be in place in 'a few weeks' - that is around the date set for the FBU's recalled conference.
It is clearly a move to bounce delegates to that meeting into surrender. Andy Gilchrist and the majority of the FBU executive have already said they are prepared to accept an offer that members and activists are against. Activists in the FBU are organising now to win firm rejection of the offer on stations and in brigades.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, rightly says Prescott's announcement 'amounts to a direct threat to every public sector worker and trade unionist in Britain. Here is a government that says it wants to impose human rights in Iraq at the point of a gun, yet wants to deny workers in Britain the basic right to bargain with their employers.
Unions must show solidarity
'If the FBU is to be attacked in this way the TUC must mobilise the whole trade union movement in their defence.' Leaders of the TUC, FBU and every trade union should be organising now to beat off this threat and give solidarity to the firefighters. They need to immediately break off all relations with the government until it withdraws a measure Thatcher would be proud to push through.
A number of union leaders claim that the unions' link with Labour is important to keep. They should, at minimum, instruct their representatives on Labour Party bodies, such as the national executive committee, to vote against the whole Blair agenda.