Socialist Worker

'Why it was wrong to suspend our strike'

by Dick Duane, Basildon station, Essex
Issue No. 1829

SHOCK, bewilderment, anger. Those words sum up the emotions FBU members felt when our executive suspended the strike due to start this week. Calling off the strike for 'exploratory talks at ACAS' is a major mistake. There is a serious danger that our pay campaign will not deliver, and could even end in defeat.

Even the minority of members, widely reported in the media, who were relieved at the suspension are left wondering 'what now?' Suspending the strike risks throwing away the momentum activists inside and outside the FBU have worked to build. There was relief in Number Ten and crowing in the media which claimed our campaign is on the verge of collapse.

ACAS is not going to give us a miracle breakthrough. So why did Andy Gilchrist and our executive (by a two to one vote) suspend? It's not because support for the strike was weakening. There was no indication of that from any region.

Regional officials were not even consulted. The first anyone heard about it was after the decision was taken. The only debate on stations up to then was what shape further strikes should take.

If the decision was taken in order to appear moderate and show the government to be the militants, then we have lost more than we have gained. The government does not simply appear militant - it is militant. Labour ministers' agenda is to push through cuts and inflict a serious defeat on the FBU.

Our union has suspended four strikes and allowed 16 percent, not £30k, to be the figure we are negotiating around. At each stage the government has gone on the offensive. It has launched a vile propaganda war. Labour ministers are treating us just like Thatcher treated the miners. The Labour government has politicised the strike. Andy Gilchrist is right about that.

He was also right to attack what New Labour stands for, and the obscenity of announcing £1 billion extra for war while refusing us a proper pay rise. So why call off this week's eight-dayer? John Monks says the suspension puts pressure back on the government. It does the opposite. It leaves Blair and co feeling they can decide whether to offer the FBU a bad deal, or go further and stick the boot in even harder.

It is madness to say that one reason for suspending is 'to show the non-political nature of the dispute', just as Andy Gilchrist is under media attack for criticising the government's political approach. Our enemies seize on that as a sign of retreat.

And what a week to call off action! We got the TUC to endorse Saturday's march. Other unions were mobilising strongly for it. Activists were still building for the march after our executive's decision. But the march will not be as powerful as it would have been if we could have sent all four watches and used the strike to build it.

The on-off policy from our national leaders has disoriented FBU activists. And it has seriously undermined the drive to build trade union solidarity. Our experience in Basildon is typical. We collected £1,080 outside the Case New Holland tractor plant last Friday. We persuaded the TGWU branch there to lay on transport for Saturday's demo.

Monday's decision made it far more difficult to get workers from the factory to come to London. We can still win. But we have to understand just how aggressive this government is and respond accordingly.

There must be no more strike suspensions for 'exploratory talks'. We must get out of the trap of talks about modernisation and get back to our £30k campaign. Our strikes work. They have united the membership. The army has not coped. Where we have gone into other workplaces, unions and the community we have tapped the support to sustain strikes financially, and laid the basis for further solidarity.

Solidarity is the key to victory. Blair's attack on us is an attack on the whole union movement. Every union leader should be calling for solidarity action in our support.

We don't want double games from the likes of John Monks - outward support but, behind the scenes, thumbscrews on our leaders to compromise. Our FBU leaders should be pushing for solidarity, whatever Monks says. London Underground workers took a brave stand during our 48-hour strike. They want to do so again, despite pressure from their management and the government.

The FBU should issue a leaflet to them, reinforcing Bob Crow's message that the tube is not safe when we strike. We need pressure on the TUC from every union, from the bottom up if necessary, to call action in our support. We can't do that if we are seen to be retreating. This government has shown it is not on our side.

Four fifths of the money New Labour has raised over the last three months has come from the unions. That money would be better spent taking on the government and funding genuine socialists prepared to stand up and be counted.

The government is fighting on both fronts - industrially and politically. We should hold firm. Our national leaders need to match the resolve of the rank and file.

Andy Gilchrist has said our campaign is membership led. There has been precious little rank and file involvement in key decisions. There should be mass meetings to debate out what we think and ensure executive members reflect our views.

The employers and government want executive members and officials isolated in meetings in London. We want them in regions and on the stations. We have taken the first steps towards building a network of rank and file activists - the Red Watch paper has found a ready audience. We should develop that.

We can win. But there has to be a clear strategy, discussed by the rank and file, not behind closed doors with TUC officials.


Clerkenwell solidarity

A MEETING of ACTSS union members at Amnesty International in central London has led to an inspiring launch meeting of a firefighters' support group in Clerkenwell.

We 'adopted' our local fire station, Clerkenwell. John Murtagh, an FBU rep there, was delighted by our 'adoption'. We decided to call a meeting to start a local support group.

John came with us as we went into local shops, asking them to display posters. Most agreed. A group of us petitioned and leafleted lunchtime crowds. We approached key workplaces. The response was magnificent. Over 40 people came to the meeting. Among them were six firefighters, trade unionists from 12 local workplaces, including the huge Mount Pleasant sorting office, and local residents. Workers at the Guardian had collected over £500. John Murtagh opened the meeting and we focused on practical ways of building solidarity.
Clare Fermont


Chesterfield turns out

SOME 140 people filled the ballroom at Chesterfield's Winding Wheel Centre for a rally in support of the FBU strikers. Platform speakers from the PCS, NUT and Unison unions were joined by councillor John Dunn, chair of the Derbyshire Fire Authority, who pledged his support for the firefighters.

There was loud applause when speakers from the platform and the floor questioned the trade unions' continued funding of the Labour Party.
James Eaden


Locating the turkeys

STAFF AT Ilfracombe College invited Trevor French, the Ilfracombe fire station FBU rep, to a union meeting last week. Trevor said there had been brilliant support with people tooting car horns and bringing food and money.

A local chip shop is providing the picket with two meals a day and local residents are planning to buy Christmas presents for the strikers' children. One person delivered 25 Christmas turkeys to the picket. They said, 'The turkeys are in the cabinet.'
Dave Clinch


Boost to confidence

A 250-STRONG rally in Coventry at the start of the first eight-day strike has inspired Canley fire station to mount a picket line. Previously they had felt too small. Firefighters also spoke to 300 Amicus union members at a mass meeting at the Jaguar car plant. They got rapturous applause and collected over £200.
Penny Hicks


Across the Mersey

HERE'S JUST a few examples of support for the firefighters on Merseyside:

  • Members of the National Union of Teachers at Hope Valley Junior School collected £62. Six teachers took the money to West Derby Road fire station.
  • Print workers in the GPMU union at local newspapers gave £250 to Long Lane station.
  • Rail workers in the RMT union also donated £250 to Long Lane.
  • Toxteth mosque collected £90 for Toxteth station.
Paul Sillett

RedWatch The voice of rank & file firefighters and control staff 20p - for your copy phone 07973 521 594 or 07939 021 084 or e-mail redwatch_FBU@hotmail.com


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