Socialist Worker

Why didn't firefighters get victory?

FBU members speak out about what went wrong with the battle over pay and cuts

Issue No. 1856

'I KNOW it's an overused phrase, but we've been utterly sold out.' With those words Fergus Richmond, a firefighter from Ayr, summed up the bitterness of Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members at the end of their pay dispute on Thursday of last week.

'It's not like our leadership threw everything into the fight only to find we lost,' he continued. 'It's that we never took the gloves off.' There's no doubting how awful the deal is that the FBU leadership finally forced delegates at the union's recalled conference to accept by about 70 to 30 on a show of hands.

No delegate, whichever way they voted, left the conference smiling. The national deal opens the door to local attacks on jobs, conditions and the fire service. Almost the minute it went through, the chief officer of Merseyside brigade hinted at cuts that will slash upwards of 150 jobs.

The following day a senior manager in Bedfordshire told that evening's watch (shift) at the emergency control room that they would be merged with the controls of Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. The control staff would have to reapply for their jobs, not on existing national conditions, and redundancies could not be ruled out.

Activists and local officials elsewhere were expecting to hear of further attacks over the coming days and weeks. Some are already preparing to resist those attacks. All of them, along with activists in other unions, want to know what the hell went wrong with a national pay campaign that burst onto the streets last summer, inspiring the rest of trade union movement.

'There's absolutely no way you can blame the members,' Mick Syme from the FBU in Bedfordshire told Socialist Worker. 'Every time they were asked to strike, they responded brilliantly.'

'The responsibility for this debacle lies squarely with the national leadership. They repeatedly called off strikes in favour of weeks of negotiations. Activists warned at the time, just as you did in Socialist Worker, that this would demobilise the fight, undermine solidarity and be taken by the employers as a sign of weakness. And that's exactly what happened.'

'There were rumours throughout the last nine months, often played up by our general secretary Andy Gilchrist and others in the leadership, that other areas were buckling,' says Dick Duane from Essex FBU.

'But when you contacted those areas or got reports into, for example, the rank and file paper Red Watch, you found local activists furious that they were being maligned as wobbly.'

'All along, I think most of us were just too trusting of the leadership,' says Jimmy Scott from Maryhill station in Glasgow. 'The turning point, looking back at it, was when the eight-day strike was called off in November. Now we find Andy Gilchrist telling the recalled conference that it was adventurism to think we could beat the government. That's just not true. And it would have been nice of him to say he thought that before he started the whole campaign.'

Need to organise at grassroots

'THE BIGGEST lesson out of all of this is, don't trust your national leaders and organise separately from them at grassroots level,' says Manchester firefighter Simon Hickman. He coordinated the unofficial 30k website, which became a discussion board for rank and file firefighters during the dispute.

That lesson is crucial not only for FBU members, but for activists across the trade unions. 'The leadership finally succeeded in wearing down the members,' says Martin Gallagher from the FBU in Lancashire. 'They had a national machine to push their line. We had to improvise. I am just sick of trade union leaders talking left and acting right.'

Andy Gilchrist was elected over two years ago and was hailed as part of the 'awkward squad' of new left wing union leaders. He initiated the pay campaign at the union's conference in May of last year. But Gilchrist signalled the limits of the kind of campaign he was prepared to fight.

He got delegates to overturn a decision from the previous year to open up the union's political fund to back socialist candidates even if they were not in the Labour Party. He argued the union's link with Labour would secure it influence with the government in the coming pay battle.

Crucially, he showed he intended to keep the fight 'within the family' rather than provoke the biggest political crisis possible for the government if it didn't pay up.

The campaign delivered one of the best strike votes in history and brought the spirit of anti-capitalist protests to trade union demonstrations. But the leadership called off strike after strike in November and December.

It became clear Gilchrist and the FBU leadership had no strategy to win the dispute beyond a token show of force. They hoped to cut a backroom deal with John Prescott and supposedly 'Old Labour' ministers. Dick Duane from Essex says, 'Most FBU members had never been on strike-the last national stoppage was in 1977. There was a positive sense of unity. But there was also a big reluctance in many areas to criticise the leadership even as doubts grew. Most local officials did not know how to react when the leadership started to backtrack.'

Gilchrist distanced himself from the two most consistent left union leaders-Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS. The left election victories had been an indication that rank and file union members wanted to see leaders stand up to the government.

But that did not automatically mean there was organised rank and file pressure to make that happen. In the FBU that meant the need to fight independently when the leadership succumbed to pressure to hold back.

There were attempts to build that organisation. 'The Red Watch rank and file paper really took off during the dispute,' says Dick Duane. 'There were also unofficial meetings of local union officials. But they reflected the fragmentation in the union. Organised opposition to the leadership grew and was able to stop the first attempted sell-out. But it wasn't big enough to wrench control of the dispute.'

'We need an organised left force in the union,' says Jimmy Scott from Glasgow. 'Those of us arguing in Glasgow to reject the deal did not know what was happening elsewhere. That's got to change.' 'It doesn't matter who your leaders are,' says Mick Syme from Bedfordshire. 'You've got to be organised yourselves and prepared to coordinate a fight if your leaders won't.'

Strikes won support and solidarity action

'IT'S A joke to say the government could not be beaten,' says Graham Tranquade from the FBU's East Anglia region. 'We had them on the back foot, but at key moments the pressure came off and they had the room to manoeuvre.'

Firefighters' support groups had sprung up across Britain. Their meetings were big and attracted key local trade unionists. They aimed to deliver financial support and other forms of solidarity.

On the first 48-hour strike 400 drivers and other grades brought large parts of London Underground to a halt as they refused to work without adequate fire cover. This led to panicky phone calls from deputy prime minister John Prescott trying in vain to get RMT union officials to get people back to work.

The government was in disarray, with fire minister Nick Raynsford first insulting FBU members as 'criminally irresponsible' and then backtracking. Popular support for the firefighters was just as high during the next strike, which was eight days long. This was despite a government propaganda blitz.

Ian Foulkes from Merseyside FBU says, 'The government and media called us greedy. I went to a civil service union meeting where everyone was on under £16,000. They all backed us. They knew if we broke through they would find it easier to take on the government.'

But the FBU leadership killed the momentum of the dispute. A chance to combine the biggest political crisis for the government over the Iraq war with its biggest industrial challenge was thrown away.

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Sat 21 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1856
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