A WAVE of support and solidarity greeted firefighters and emergency control room staff from the minute they walked out the door. 'The vast majority of our people have never been on strike before,' Tam McFarlane, secretary of the south west England region of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), told Socialist Worker. 'The support they have got from other trade unionists and the public has been just overwhelming. And we are talking about areas like Somerset, Cornwall and Devon. It's given them confidence to stand up to the press attacks. No one in the fire service wants to be on strike. But the solidarity we are getting convinces us we are right to take this difficult step, and that we will win.'
It was the same picture right across Britain and Northern Ireland. And with the support came rising concerns about unsafe working conditions during the strike. This wasn't just on the tube. Union activists got management to close south London's Peckham Library on safety grounds. Brixton DSS was shut for a day, and Bristol City College was closed above the second floor.
Many working people have shown their support for the firefighters, although the media is trying to downplay it. 'About 25 trade unionists gathered outside Huddersfield fire station on Wednesday to support the 80 firefighters who walked out at 6pm,' says Nick Ruff from the Unison union branch in Kirklees council.
'We had union banners there, and the firefighters were just gobsmacked that anyone had bothered to turn up at all. My union branch made a donation of £500. Then we collected £50 at the bus garage on Friday, £450 in the town centre on Saturday, and over £600 at the rugby match that afternoon. After last week's strike the support group has shot back into life and we aim to make it a focus for delivering the serious solidarity, financial and otherwise, needed for the firefighters to win.'
In Liverpool nine striking stations were visited by a combination of nurses and health workers, council workers, students, media workers, play centre workers, legal aid workers, pensioners and lecturers. A group of pensioners turned up with donations to Hornsey station, north London, a couple of hours after news broke of the tragic death of a pensioner in a house fire in Mid Wales.
'You're not to blame,' they told the striking firefighters. 'It's the government.' 'The support is such a boost to our morale,' Iain Scott, secretary of the FBU at Greenock station in Scotland, told Socialist Worker from the picket line. As with every other picket line report phoned in last week, he struggled to make himself heard above the sound of cars hooting in support.
'Two Asian people have just turned up. They offered us some fruit and then unloaded what seemed like half a shop-full from the back of the car. It's incredibly moving. It's uniting workers and communities. If anyone is unsure whether coming to fire stations to give support is worthwhile, just ask any FBU member and they'll tell you it makes the world of difference.'
Every region, brigade, station and control room has its own stories of public support. Pickets at Radford station, Coventry, raised over £1,000. The support ranged from a bottle of champagne handed to firefighters in Kensington in London ('You get a better class of support round here!') through to people living opposite Strood station in Kent who inundated the picket line with all manner of takeaways.
Hundreds collected in Brum
'THIS IS a snapshot of the support for the firefighters in our area. Birmingham council Unison union branch has donated £500. Dave, who works in transportation, got a firefighter from Central fire station to speak at a meeting of 20 stewards. He has also been doing section meetings with street cleaners, raising £25 at the Montague Street cleaners' meeting and £31 at Lifford Lane.
Luke, who works in housing, took £13 to Cotteridge fire station. Caroline raised £25 at Aldridge Road day centre. Jenny from the employment preparation team took £16 to Ward End fire station. Janine raised £26 from social services in Sheldon and took £60 collected on a Socialist Worker sale to Billesley fire station.
Sarah raised £63 at Selly Oak job centre going round with another steward. She explained, 'It was really easy to argue for solidarity because we received lots of collections when we were on strike ourselves. 'I've spoken to other stewards that I got to know during the strike. 'I am sending them collection sheets, and talked to them about which fire station they can twin with.'
Rose took £20 from clerical workers at the BMA in Birmingham to Bournbrook fire station. 'The reception was fantastic. You'd think I'd taken thousands of pounds from the cheer I received,' she said. Health workers have raised support. Heartlands and Solihull Hospitals Unison branch donated £50 just before the strike was on, and has pledged to give more. John, a community psychiatric nurse, took £25 to Bournbrook.
I have collected £30 so far, and my union branch has backed a support meeting for hospital staff. Among car workers in Birmingham a Longbridge worker, Anil, collected £39 in the plant. A further £45 was collected at the factory gate. Firefighters at the Solihull station spoke of how moved they were to receive £25 collected at Land Rover, and said they knew people weren't stupid enough to 'believe the lies in the Sun'.
Many others have also raised money among workmates and done bucket collections across the city, including £200 in the main shopping centre.'
Louise Rathbone, Birmingham health worker
What you can do
EVERYONE CAN do something to support the firefighters and control room staff.
- Collect money at work, college or where you live.
- Twin your workplace or college with a local fire station. Set up a support group. The FBU is encouraging its members to be part of them everywhere.
- Get firefighters into your workplace or union branch, and get workmates down to the fire stations. FBU members need to feel the support they are getting.
- Follow the example of the tube workers and start raising your concerns over health and safety at work. No one should be working in unsafe conditions.
Raising money opened debate
LOW PAID workers understand that a victory for the FBU will be a step forward for everyone. Pickets outside Royal Liverpool Hospital, where health workers on just £4.15 an hour were on strike over pay last week, donated £19 to the firefighters (see page 15 for hospital strike report). Chris, a member of the GMB union, is a care worker for the elderly in Barking, east London.
The small office she works from does not have a strong tradition of union organisation. But Chris collected for the firefighters, and 'almost everyone signed the petition and many gave money.
'One care manager objected. She said that the firefighters had good jobs, that they only get called out once a month, and that they don't deserve more than what we are paid. When I took the collection to the fire station I told them about the argument. They showed me some statistics for their station. Last year they responded to over 2,500 calls. When I got back to work I pinned the collection sheet and that statistic on the noticeboard for everyone to see.'