'WE'VE NOW got to go out and win a resounding vote against this deal on the stations, and then at the recalled conference.' With those words Paul Embury from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) at Islington station, north London, summed up the feeling of many hundreds of activists in the union.
The FBU is now at the most critical stage of its long-running pay campaign. Twelve months ago the FBU conference voted to campaign for £30,000 for a firefighter, parity for control room operators and retained (part time) firefighters, and a new pay formula. That was followed by a series of mass demonstrations over the summer and a nine to one strike vote.
Now the union's leadership is asking FBU members to accept an awful offer on pay which also opens the door to cuts. 'If we are forced into accepting this,' says Dick Duane from the FBU in Essex and the Red Watch rank and file paper, 'it will be a serious defeat. Our general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, and the majority of the executive say if the members reject this, as we did with the employers' last final offer, then Prescott will impose something worse. Prescott's threat is designed to intimidate. Our union leadership should face down the intimidation, not cave in to it. Whenever we have struck, we have been solid. We have got public support and have thrown the pressure back on the government and the employers. But we called off far more strikes than we carried through. When we did that the campaign lost momentum. This is not a failure of striking. This is a failure of not striking. And we have this one last chance to turn it around by rejecting this deal.
'The problem is that no one on the ground believes the union's national leadership has any will to fight on, and everyone on the ground knows it. Our campaign has been demobilised at key points. Strikes were called off before Christmas. Strikes which would have coincided with the two million strong anti-war march in February were called off. The solidarity shown at the beginning, particularly by tube workers, was thrown away. We were told there were back door channels to Prescott, then Prescott kicked us harder and harder. There is some demoralisation at the rank and file. We've got to throw everything we can at turning it around. If this deal goes through it will be a testament to the mistakes and compromises our leadership have made.'
Whatever the form of words in the deal, local employers and chief officers have already begun an offensive in some areas. 'There are going to be local battles,' says Matt Lee from the FBU in Derbyshire. 'The strength of opposition in Derbyshire to what the leadership has done is based on the passion and commitment of the rank and file. We need to build on that locally, and link it up with other regions and brigades. That network is going to be needed, just as it was needed during this dispute.'