Socialist Worker

48 hours that showed the power to win

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1827

THE TWO-day firefighters' strike last week, and the support it got, rattled the government. Large sections of the capital's tube system shut during the strike when workers took impressive action over health and safety (see below). The strike also transformed the 55,000 members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist told over 600 people at a fundraising gig in west London on Friday of last week that his tour of mass meetings showed a deepening confidence among firefighters that they will win.

Over 2,000 FBU members attended a Glasgow mass meeting. 'It left no doubt about the level of support for the strike,' said Billy Coats, FBU secretary at Paisley station.

'It was an incredible atmosphere. People are prepared for a long haul if it comes to it. The vile insults in the press and from politicians have only hardened people's mood.'

'The level of support among the members for the strike is beyond our wildest dreams,' said Mark Simmons, chair of the FBU in Kent. 'I visited every picket line in Kent. People who were nervous about striking just grew in confidence. Blair has thrown down the gauntlet. We need to hit back, and hard. People don't want to have to strike, but there is no talk of accepting a compromise that falls short of what we want.'

'People have discovered they can fight back,' said Andy Brickles from the FBU in the East Midlands. Everywhere people went back in on Friday stronger than when they went out. It's important every FBU member realises they have to be active in this strike. It can't be left to a few officials. Raising money, speaking at meetings and building support are not about begging for charity - they are about ensuring we win.'

Looking to rank and file

THE STRIKE has unleashed the kind of energy from rank and file FBU members we saw throughout the campaign in the summer. Now let's build on it. We've seen the disgusting propaganda the government and the media are prepared to throw against us, and the way they are trying to undermine and pressure our leaders.

There's one answer to that - maximum involvement of all FBU members in winning solidarity and determining democratically how we fight our dispute.
Neale Williams, Eastern Command Group Three, London

Response to threat to seize engines

THE GOVERNMENT indicated at the beginning of this week that it would bow to Tory demands to seize fire engines. Davey Patton, FBU national safety officer, told Socialist Worker: 'If they do that it will mark a serious escalation. The army does not have the training to use those engines. So it's dangerous. Second, if they seize our engines there is no way firefighters on picket lines will be able to respond to life-threatening situations, as people did during last week's strike. Lastly, these machines require high levels of maintenance. We would need to spend days checking every bit of equipment. So the government would be effectively extending any stoppage.'

'Don't mind driving, do mind dying'

By London tube workers

TONY BLAIR said it was 'unacceptable' for drivers on London Underground to refuse to drive when there was no adequate fire cover. What we find unacceptable is putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of passengers at risk.

Before the strike London Underground already had to announce it was closing 22 stations on safety grounds. If they are not safe - because the only access is by lift - what about the rest? And what about driving trains through tunnels when there will be no rescue crews if anything goes wrong?

The government's real fear is that our action on safety grounds will inspire others to do the same, giving a huge boost to the firefighters. John Prescott's office was onto our regional official on Wednesday night within a couple of hours of people saying they would not work normally. The truth is that every worker has the right under Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act not to work under dangerous conditions. We were able to act on that on many parts of the underground because we were organised.

Both the RMT and Aslef unions sent letters out to members weeks ago advising them over health and safety. Even then it took organisation on the ground. Union reps and activists on the Piccadilly Line began raising the issue on the Wednesday of the strike.

At the Arnos Grove depot the reps who were on early turns stayed on after and advised the middle turns. A group of firefighters turned up to the depot, and that helped a lot. By late Wednesday evening the Piccadilly, Northern and Waterloo & City lines had been suspended. The news spread across the network. Four drivers on the Hammersmith & City Line refused to work.

The next day it built up quickly. Drivers took it upon themselves not to work. Longstanding drivers who know the rules were confident in saying no to management. Once a few had done it, just about every other driver refused to work.

By Thursday afternoon there was little or no service on the Piccadilly, Northern, Circle, Hammersmith & City, Waterloo & City lines and severe disruption on others.

Management claimed that only 98 out of 15,000 staff were refusing to work normally. But the true figure is closer to 500 drivers. And we tricked management into admitting in an e-mail that there are never all 15,000 staff on duty, and that even their figure of 98 drivers is 20 percent of the total they claimed would be working. Management did not know how to respond.

They ended up calling everyone who was refusing to drive to the company's headquarters, where they were treated to bacon sandwiches and a chat about how safe the tube is. It didn't work. Union reps were there to advise.

Management were able to intimidate station staff into working, but there is strong support there to for the firefighters and also safety concerns. We are organising to build on the action taken last week if the next firefighters' strike goes ahead.

The RMT's decision to ballot for strike action where management refuses to say it will not discipline people is a good step forward.

BITTERNESS WITH New Labour grew as the government smeared the firefighters. 'I've been inundated with requests to opt out of the bit of the political fund that goes to the Labour Party,' says Mark Simmons from the FBU in Kent. 'Next year's FBU conference will definitely be discussing the relationship with the Labour Party. The issue of democratising the fund so we can back parties like the Socialist Alliance and not only Labour will come up again. I don't think the union's leadership will find it easy to defeat it.'

John McDonald, FBU executive member for Scotland, welcomed Scottish Socialist Party MSP Tommy Sheridan and left Labour MP John McAllion to the Glasgow mass meeting, and said FBU members will remember who had supported them and who had not when it comes to elections.

For Copies of Red Watch, the paper for rank and file firefighters and control staff, phone 07973 521 594 or e-mail [email protected]

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