Socialist Worker

Blair provokes war on the home front

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1826

FIREFIGHTERS RISK their lives for just £21,531 a year. They were absolutely right to reject the Bain inquiry into the fire service. This inquiry was supposed to be 'independent'. But it accepted the government's pay policy wholesale.

It said that 'more money for pay can be justified only by efficiency savings'. That's certainly not the line New Labour took when MPs voted themselves a 40 percent increase last year. 'Efficiency savings' equal cuts to the fire and other emergency services. And they mean attacks on the conditions firefighters work under. Bain, the government and the employers are calling for:

  • Reducing the number of firefighters on duty at night, even though most deaths from fire take place between 2am and 5am. 'They are talking about having fewer firefighters when people most need them-at night and in the morning rush hour, when we are cutting people out of road traffic accidents,' says Adrian Clark, secretary of the firefighters' FBU union in Cambridgeshire.
  • Making firefighters and control room staff depend on overtime to take home enough to pay the bills - all, incredibly, in the name of 'family friendly' policies. The media has attacked firefighters who are forced to do a second job, such as cabbing, to make up their earnings. But the Bain inquiry says full time firefighters will need to fill in as part timers (retained) to make up their pay.

There are currently 2,000 vacancies for retained firefighters. The government's solution? Force full time firefighters to cover rather than improve pay to attract new recruits. Bain also claims firefighters are well paid in comparison to other groups. Nick Raynsford, the fire service minister, agrees. He would. He's on £96,000 a year. How many lives has he saved? 'People have just had enough,' says Matt Lee, chair of the FBU in Derbyshire. 'There is greater support than ever before for striking. And we are organising intensely to build solidarity too. We want and need the support of the wider trade union movement. We will get it.'

Safety through solidarity

SOLIDARITY IS key to victory for the firefighters and control room operators, and the government knows it. The Health and Safety Executive has sent a warning to the cabinet's Cobra committee, set up to break a Fire Brigades Union (FBU) strike. It said there is a groundswell of feeling in many workplaces against working in unsafe conditions during a strike.

The RMT and Aslef rail unions have both mailed their members directly saying that the union leaderships will back anyone who refuses to work normally on a firefighters' strike day. The GMB, Amicus and Unison unions have also told their members they are right to raise safety concerns.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka sent out a strongly-worded circular on Tuesday calling on civil servants not to take on duties that undermine the firefighters' strike.

The delaying tactics by fire authority employers and the government have been as much as anything about undermining the mood for solidarity action with the FBU. But the basic feeling among workplace health and safety reps remains. 'We are going to work hard to draw that feeling together again,' one health and safety rep on London Underground told Socialist Worker. The mood of solidarity tapped by support groups set up just after the FBU's ballot result was announced four weeks ago also remains. Collections and leafleting by FBU members and supporters have shown the level of support for the firefighters.

Every trade unionist can collect for the firefighters, raise solidarity, and ensure that people know it is the government which is compromising safety.

Hypocrisy on women

'THE BIGGEST insult is the idea that the employers and the government care about getting more women and ethnic minorities into the service. Through the union women have fought for years for better conditions. There are still brigades without maternity policies. The West Sussex brigade has just used capability procedures to sack a pregnant woman. Who is defending her? The FBU.

A number of brigades still do not have maternity leave policies. We are still fighting for toilet facilities for women on stations. Now the employers, who have resisted us all the way, are trying to use the lack of women firefighters to justify attacking the conditions of every firefighter, male and female.

And they are not even prepared to guarantee control room staff, who are overwhelmingly women, equal pay with firefighters. The great con is the idea that the shift system is discriminatory to women. It assumes that men do no childcare, which simply isn't true. That shift system allowed me as a single parent to see more of my son. Other women across the country tell me the same.

And how the hell can making us work overtime, on top of the 42 hours a week we do, help attract women, or men, to the fire service?'
Sian Griffiths, FBU area secretary, west London, and one of the first ever woman firefighters in Britain

What you do will help

  • DEMAND NOW that your employers come up with a risk assessment. But don't trust what they say. You, your health and safety reps and union do not have to agree it.

    NO ONE should be working in unsafe conditions. Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act says you have a legal obligation not to put yourself and others at risk. You can turn up to your workplace but refuse to work on safety grounds. It is not like going on strike - you do not need a ballot to stay within the law.

  • GET FIREFIGHTERS into your workplace, and get workmates down to the fire stations. They need to feel the solidarity. And they will build your confidence to defend safety.
  • START COLLECTING now for the firefighters' hardship fund. Don't let financial hardship allow the government break them.

  • TWIN YOUR workplace with a fire station or control room. Contact other trade unionists and set up a firefighters' support group. These are vital to raising money. But they can also provide a network to encourage action over safety and practical solidarity for the firefighters, such as boosting their pickets and rallies.

Scaremonger government

THE NEW Labour government is putting lives at risk by forcing firefighters to strike. Tony Blair cynically hyped up the threat of a terrorist attack in Britain on Monday of this week. He wanted to justify war on Iraq, but also to scaremonger over any firefighters' strike.

The government's own study on terrorism after 11 September, however, called for an extra £280 million for the fire service to be able to cope with any potential threat. The fire service has not received a penny of that money.

One law for Bain...

SIR GEORGE Bain chaired the government's Low Pay Commission three years ago. It came up with a poverty level figure of £3.60 an hour for the minimum wage. Bain, as vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast, employed workers on as little as £10,500 a year.

He spent five times that much on a new Mercedes. He is also a director of an arms company, Bombardier Aerospace Shorts Brothers, and of Canada Life Insurance. He was knighted under New Labour last year.

Bosses are offensive

THE BOSSES' Financial Times has called on the government to launch a Thatcher-style confrontation against the firefighters. 'The employers and the government must have a plan up their sleeve other than having the army fight fires. This should be an ultimatum - accept new terms and conditions or think about an alternative career. Just last week Strathclyde Transport Authority settled a wildcat strike on Glasgow's subway system in two days by dismissing all striking employees. The possibility of dismissal helps to concentrate minds wonderfully.'

Lest we forget...

THE FUNERAL of Bob Miller, the 44 year old firefighter from Leicester who was recently killed in a fire, took place on Tuesday. That was just hours before the government and employers forced Bob's union into striking.

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Article information

Sat 16 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1826
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