Socialist Worker

Lies are a cover for New Labour's union bashing

Issue No. 1829

'THE ABUSE this Labour government is hurling at us is as bad as the Tories' attacks on the miners.' That's what Ian Foulkes from Liverpool says of the bile pouring out of government ministers' mouths.

'Blair's worse than Thatcher,' says Rick Davidson from Islington station, north London. 'We fought the odd station closure under her - now we're threatened with thousands of job losses.' One Labour minister in the Scottish Executive, Richard Simpson, referred to striking firefighters as 'fascists' and 'bastards'.

He was forced to resign after admitting his claim that he was repeating a constituent's words was untrue. Disgracefully, Simpson will still get a £6,000 payoff. Westminster armed forces minister Adam Ingram is still in his job after saying FBU officials are 'not fit to lace the boots' of soldiers ordered to break the strike.

The venom directed at the firefighters goes right to the top of the Labour government. Deputy prime minister John Prescott implied last week that firefighters who retire through ill health are faking injuries. In the same speech he admitted that 11,000 firefighters' jobs - one in five - could go under the government's 'modernisation' plans.

Slashing fire services and forcing workers to do intolerable hours is the reality behind that 'modernisation'. The government 'review' of the army's response during the strike claimed this week that 19,000 soldiers with ancient Green Goddess appliances had done well. In fact 40 percent of all calls asking for an appliance got none. Labour minister Nick Raynsford suggests that this shows the fire service could be restructured with fewer firefighters, worse shift patterns, and control rooms merged with the ambulance and police services.

The government particularly wants to cut fire cover at night. But deaths from fire are far more likely to occur at night than during the day. More than twice as many children were killed by fire during the night last year than during the day.

Some 92 more people overall were killed at night than during the day. Of course, there are more calls during the day. But night calls tend to be more serious, and to require a faster response and more firefighters in attendance.

The government makes noises about less fire cover at night being more 'family friendly' for firefighters. But the army operation it uses as its model is based on shifts ending at 2am - hardly family friendly.

The way the government wants to cut night-time cover fits with only one strategy - putting the protection of business premises during the day above saving lives at night.

Changing the shift patterns also means longer hours and fewer jobs. Firefighters currently do 42 hours (plus six hours of unpaid meal breaks) every eight days. Flexible working is designed to put full time firefighters at the beck and call of management for even longer.

The government wants to hold down basic pay rates to force firefighters to do more overtime. That means dangerously long hours and job cuts. The government also wants full time firefighters to be on call on their days off.

Tony Blair argues that the union is objecting to full time firefighters working with 'retained' (part time) firefighters. They already work together. New Labour's plan means reducing the number of full timers. And it means leaving them waiting for retained firefighters to get to the station from their normal workplaces before an appliance is sent out.

The government's drive to merge emergency control rooms is also about cuts. The army did not operate joint control rooms with the ambulance service, but were merely directed to incidents by the police.

A report into the Cleveland control centre, which merges the police and ambulance service, found the 'modernisation' plan resulted in at least one extra death last year.

'That's because the drive is to treat the control rooms as call centres,' says Val Salmon, a fire control operator in Manchester. The reality is that there are different skills and knowledge needed. A fire control operator can advise someone how to escape a life threatening incident while the engines are on their way. An ambulance operator has to talk to someone about how to deal with a heart attack.'

Ministers say that because the fire brigade is usually first to an incident firefighters should also take on the role of ambulance workers and paramedics. But it takes three years to train a paramedic. The government has no intention of giving firefighters that level of paramedic training.

It should increase the number of ambulance workers to improve response times from that service. Instead New Labour wants firefighters to do a second job, without adequate training, for no extra money and at the expense of another emergency service.


No longer retained

THE MEDIA dredged up officials from the collapsing, scab Retained Firefighters Union (RFU) at the weekend to attack the strike. The RFU only had around 2,000 members before the strikes started. It's a lot less now.

Over 100 firefighters have joined the FBU in Hampshire, many of them retained firefighters. Some 75 retained firefighters in North Wales joined the FBU, leaving the RFU with just 100 members out of 1,000 firefighters. There are just 23 RFU members left in South Wales. The vast majority of retained firefighters were right behind the strike.


The truth on Scargill

ONE OF the most disgusting attacks on the FBU and its leadership is that they are not interested in firefighters' pay and conditions, but are launching a political strike, 'just like Arthur Scargill and the miners'. The miners struck in 1984-5 to stop pit closures, not to bring down the Tory government.

It was the government that politicised the strike and provoked it, with the aim of crushing a trade union. Every mainstream paper dismissed Arthur Scargill's 1984 prediction that the Tories wanted to destroy the mining industry.

There were 180,000 miners when the Tory government announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in March 1984, triggering the year-long strike. Trade union and Labour Party leaders left the miners to fight alone and be defeated a year later.

Then in 1992 the Tories set about massacring what was left of the mining industry. Millions of people realised that the National Union of Miners had been right. There are now just 7,000 coal miners in Britain.


Who's risking lives?

AN INTERNAL memo to police chiefs threatens to arrest striking firefighters for responding to major incidents to save lives. It accuses crews who have gone from picket lines to serious fires of doing it only for publicity.

The memo says, 'Such 'humanitarian' responses are being used in their propaganda war and undermine the military.' It adds that police escorting the military could be called on 'for assistance' if strikers refuse to leave the scene.

Striking firefighters in Leeds were told to leave the scene of a car crash during last week's strike. Ambulance bosses in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire have told their crews to accept help only from the police and military during fire strikes. Prescott claimed at the beginning of the fire dispute that firefighters would be responsible for loss of life if they went on strike. Now they are being told they are not allowed to take 'humanitarian action'.

Leading FBU activist Steve Godward has been sacked by West Midlands brigade. Phone Red Watch on 07939 021 084.


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