THE firefighters' FBU union struck a major blow against Tony Blair last week. It came just days after Labour suffered its worst election result since 1918. That was also the year the FBU affiliated to the Labour Party. The FBU ended that affiliation last week by 35,105 to 14,611 on a card vote.
At least two thirds of the 243 delegates took to their feet cheering as the motion to break with Labour was moved. Support on stations and in emergency control rooms for the decision will be even greater. Tony McGuire from Northern Ireland spelt out the feeling of rank and file activists in a brilliant speech.
"This is a party we have nurtured and sustained," he said. "It is a party that we kept faith with for 18 years under the Tories, and for what? To be stabbed, not in the back, but in the heart. Our members and our class have been betrayed by this party and they want this mirage of a link completely and utterly severed. The choice is to stay and be servile and compliant or to get out and fight for our people like tigers. We are looking for a different agenda-a return to a socialist agenda. That's why we must continue with political trade unionism."
He also explained how the demand to break with Labour had come up through stations and had been growing for at least three years. "If this is a kneejerk reaction," he said, "Then it is the slowest knee jerk in the history of knee jerking."
Mike Fordham, the FBU's assistant general secretary, tried to hold off the tidal wave at the conference. He claimed that only by staying with Labour could the union "hope to influence the Labour government".
One of his main arguments was that there is no left wing alternative. He pointed out that Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) missed winning seats in the European and London elections. But he conspicuously failed to acknowledge those areas where they had done very well.
The FBU executive's position was to cut the affiliation fee given to Labour from £50,000 to £20,000.
They also said that the political fund "may in future be used to support organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this union. This may include organisations who stand in opposition to New Labour."
Many FBU activists had thought this would bring them close to the RMT union, which was expelled from Labour in February for allowing branches to affiliate to the SSP.
But Mike Fordham said that the FBU leadership would not allow any use of the political fund that could risk expulsion from the Labour Party. In other words, as several delegates pointed out, the union would still be telling people to vote Labour, and only Labour, in every election.
Andy Imrie from West Yorkshire, speaking in support of the executive, argued why they should stick with Labour. He pointed to the struggles of workers in places like the mills of Bradford that gave birth to the party a century ago.
"Before the Labour Party we were dependent on the good will and humanitarianism of a handful of Liberal MPs. Do we want to go back to that?" he asked. But most delegates drew the lesson that what was done 100 years ago has to be done again as New Labour has abandoned the best of what Labour stood for. "This government has not taken a blind bit of notice of the millions who marched against the imperialistic invasion of Iraq," said Tony McGuire. "Even Thatcher took notice of the poll tax protests. The people it listens to are Lord Sainsbury, George Bush and Rupert Murdoch. The time has come to walk the same path as those working men and women did in Bradford 100 years ago. No more tipping the hangman."
Privatisation will force CWU break
THE DECISION at the postal and telecom workers' CWU union last week takes the union a further step away from its previous loyalty to Labour. Delegates voted to end all funding of the party if the government refuses to give a definite and unequivocal commitment that the postal service will remain in public hands.
Some of the union's leaders believe the decision will simply be a way of putting pressure on the government and will avoid further pressure to break from only funding Labour. But the motion may quickly become relevant because of strong hints that ministers are soon to unveil some new privatisation, semi-privatisation or part-privatisation scheme for the post.
During the debate London delegate Martin Walsh said, "Let's not forget that this Labour government only a few years ago wanted to sell the whole operation to Dutch or German companies. We can see a pattern emerging-first you run down a public service so that everyone complains about it, then you suggest privatisation would improve something you have deliberately run down. It's an old fashioned three-card trick-and even if you don't know how it works, you can see it happen."
Another delegate, Mark Baulch, described the threatened sell-off of the post as "a unique example of joined-up government". "Gordon Brown at the Treasury, Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Trade and Industry and senior Royal Mail managers are marching in step," he said.
"If you want to know the reality, explain why 80 percent of senior managers' bonuses are linked to financial targets and only 20 percent to quality of service. What does that say about the government's attitude to the postal service?"
Some delegates who support "reclaiming Labour" argued hard against the motion, saying that it opened the door to disaffiliation. But they were swept away by the tide of anger against the government and its policies.
The union's leaders will be watching every policy announcement from the government very closely. Billy Hayes said, "I'm sure we can gain the guarantees the union seeks and that any harebrained share-schemes from Royal Mail managers will be shown to be worthless speculation and idle daydreaming."
But deputy general secretary Dave Ward struck a different note: "In my view the deal has been done. Gordon Brown will try to justify it by saying if he raises £2 billion selling off the post he'll spend the money on health and education. Believe that if you like."
Where next after FBU conference?
WHICHEVER WAY they voted, all FBU conference delegates were clear about two issues. First, that trade unions need a political voice. Fighting the employers means organising at work, and challenging the bosses' political representatives and ideas.
Second, that money from the unions should not go to parties or organisations of the right, which are hostile to everything the unions stand for. But FBU activists report that the bitterness on stations is such that, as was also shown in the elections two weeks ago, many people are utterly alienated from official politics.
Developing a political strategy for the union from the bottom up over the next 12 months is a matter of urgency. Brigades and regions will be discussing this alongside the renewed fight over pay delegates also voted for (see page 14).
About 30 people attended a Respect fringe meeting at the FBU conference and took part in an enthusiastic and detailed discussion over how to build on what has been achieved so far.
Many speakers at the conference had called for discussion throughout the union on how to combine backing individual left wing MPs with helping to build an alternative to Labour. "I'd like to see Respect at the heart of that debate on fire stations," says Adrian Clarke from Cambridgeshire. He stood for Respect in the European elections.
Adrian says, "Respect supporters should contact FBU members locally to be part of that debate and also to invite them to any Respect activities. Our experience so far is that firefighters and emergency control staff are more than willing to give Respect a hearing because we have shown we treat them with respect."
'This government has betrayed us'
THE DISILLUSION with Labour felt by many CWU members was reflected in other debates at the conference. One motion called for a new union political officer and that "membership of the Labour Party shall be a requirement of candidature". The motion was overwhelmingly defeated, partly because delegates argued that politics was now much wider than the Labour Party.
Oxford delegate Paul Garraway told the conference, "If we restrict our choice to Labour Party members then we are cutting ourselves off from the real political voice of the members. During our recent dispute Respect members came to the picket lines. Green Party members came. But the Labour Party was nowhere to be seen."
Exeter delegate Fran Choules said, "This government has betrayed us on public services, on the war and on so many other issues. Now we are told to entrust our political campaigning to a member of this party."
These debates set the scene for the motion on whether to open up the political fund so branches could support other parties as well as Labour. Seconding the motion, Bill Johnston from Scotland No 2 branch said, "I am a member of the Labour Party but I think our branch should have the right to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party if it wants to. There is one thing I am more proud of than my Labour Party membership-democracy. The day we give up democracy is the day we have dictatorship."
Several delegates argued that the motion would lead to the Labour Party expelling the CWU and that this would mean losing vital influence. But Dean Head from South Central No 1 branch argued, "Blair doesn't listen to us any more. This motion would allow us to widen our political influence and get involved with forces that really support us."
When it came to the vote the motion was passed in the postal workers' section of the union but defeated heavily in the telecom section. This meant it was defeated overall.
The difference between the sections reflects the different levels of struggle and the way in which postal workers have learnt through hard experience exactly what Labour in office means.
With their backs to the wall, pro-Labour delegates also argued that the union had already gone far enough by passing the earlier motion to stop money to Labour if privatisation went ahead. For the moment democratisation of the fund has been beaten. But the union is getting closer to it every year.
Firefighter slams Blair's 'appalling record'
'WE'VE BEEN told that the unions got a victory at the Labour Party conference last year over foundation hospitals. But the government still went ahead with foundation hospitals. The year before the conference called for a moratorium on PFI deals. The following day Gordon Brown announced more of them.
In my city, Glasgow, they've sold off the secondary schools and the housing stock. Their record of persecution of asylum seekers is appalling. We've got our head in the sand if we think we can change this from within.'
Sandy McNiven from Strathclyde, speaking at the FBU conference