ACTIVISTS WERE fighting to stave off surrender at a special conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Thursday of this week as Socialist Worker went to press. The FBU executive and general secretary Andy Gilchrist have gone flat out over the last few weeks to persuade firefighters and control staff to accept an awful deal to end their long-running pay dispute.
The deal struck with the employers, backed by the government, paves the way for cuts and local attacks on conditions. It falls a long way short of the pay rise FBU members voted nine to one to strike for. There is a groundswell of feeling against the deal across Britain, despite understandable demoralisation over the way the dispute has been drawn out with the initiative constantly surrendered to the government.
The unofficial 30k website has been running results from votes at FBU branches. It showed between 60 and 75 percent of stations rejecting the deal. 'But that does not necessarily translate into a vote at the conference to reject it,' says Paul Embury from the FBU in Islington, north London, and a member of the editorial board of the Red Watch rank and file paper. There is a feeling against the deal everywhere. Whether it breaks through into votes against it and strong mandates on delegates depends on organisation. If you don't have effective organisation on the stations arguing for rejection and answering why we have ended up here, then the weariness with the dispute dominates. That's where people vote to accept, not because the offer's any good, but because they do not see an alternative.
'The executive have been organising to end this dispute on terrible terms. The great lesson is that we need rank and file organisation that can reject that. We will need it if the conference rejects the deal, because we know our leadership do not want to return to strikes. We'll need it if the deal goes through to be confirmed in a ballot. And we'll need it if the deal is finally accepted, because there would then be a host of local battles.'
FBU leaders' central argument for members accepting the deal is that deputy prime minister John Prescott will impose a worse offer if they don't. Prescott's fire service bill, which allows him to do that, cleared its final stage of the House of Commons on Friday of last week with just two dozen Labour MPs voting against.
But if Prescott imposed a settlement it would cause a major crisis for the government. Even FBU members who say they don't see any point in striking now to force a decent offer say they will strike hard to stop imposition.
It would also deepen the breach between the Labour Party and the unions. For those reasons, Prescott has throughout this dispute often briefed journalists about imposing an offer, but always steered away from doing so. He has relied instead on intimidating FBU leaders into backing down.
Dick Duane from the FBU in Essex says, 'The stronger the vote against this deal, even if we don't throw it out, the better off we'll be. Brigades that vote against it will give a signal to their employers that they won't be a soft touch for local attacks.
'No one should think the mess we are in is a result of fighting the government. It's a result of backing down and calling strikes off. That's the lesson the strongest areas are drawing, and activists everywhere. We've got to build on that and draw it together into a single force in the union that can make up for the weakness of our current leadership.'