THE NEW Labour government hopes to stick the boot into firefighters and control room staff following the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference on Tuesday of this week. Union leaders drove a terrible, demoralising retreat through the conference. The offensive and vibrant pay campaign of last year has become a scramble to stave off capitulation to the employers and the government.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist and the majority of the executive got delegates to vote to recommend that FBU members accept a rehashed version of the employers' derisory pay offer. That offer only gives 4 percent this year, and links future rises to cuts and attacks on conditions.
The 'new' tweaked version, drawn up by Professor Frank Burchill, concedes almost everything the employers and the government want. But, Steve Ainley from Nottinghamshire FBU told Socialist Worker, 'the employers have rejected it. Their offer is crap. Burchill is crap. Even if we end up with something in the middle it is still crap.'
The executive's conference resolution was passed with one third voting against. It does not technically rule out strikes if the employers insist on their wording for what many activists see as a surrender document. But in reality Andy Gilchrist and those supporting the executive's position also spoke against the very idea that it is possible to restart strikes to force more from the government.
'The only reason they could get this through is that repeatedly cancelling strikes and entering pointless negotiations has massively demoralised union members and activists,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London. 'The union's leadership has taken us to where we are now. They have to accept responsibility. The rank and file have been 100 percent solid whenever they have been called out. There is only one chance for a rearguard action. That's to argue in every station against this sell out. But the rot has gone deep. People are bitter at the leadership but also ground down. The real question now is stopping the rot so we are in the best position to resist the employers. They will feel emboldened to launch an offensive brigade by brigade.'
The last recalled conference four weeks ago showed a flash of the approach FBU activists need to look to. It overturned the executive, which wanted to accept the employers' offer wholesale.
But, knowing their leaders had no intention of restarting the fight, most activists this time saw no way to provide any alternative leadership. 'There are vital lessons to learn from this,' says Neale Williams. 'The most important is the need for rank and file organisation independent from union leaders who buckle under pressure. That also means taking on the pessimism that says we could never have won. It wasn't striking that failed, but a policy of not striking and instead trusting talks with Labour ministers.'
Full report next week.