'THERE'S NO way we should be suspending strikes with so little on the table. It is creating demoralisation among the activists.' That's what Del Godfrey, chair of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Essex, told Socialist Worker on Monday.
He had just come from a lobby of the FBU executive meeting which voted by 17 to two to call off the eight-day strike planned for Wednesday of this week. East Anglia was one of at least five out of 14 FBU regions to instruct their executive members to continue with this week's strike.
'The reason is straightforward,' said Del Godfrey. 'There has been no movement on the central issue of our campaign - our claim for £30,000. Calling off action takes the pressure off the employers and the government. That was true when the first two 48-hour strikes were suspended. A lot of people went along with that reluctantly. There's now a lot of anger and a great fear that our union leadership is throwing away the chance of outright victory.'
What was on offer from the employers at the beginning of this week was limited. Talks last week resulted in the employers:
- Conceding that retained (part time volunteer) firefighters should receive the same hourly pay as full time colleagues.
- Giving some ground on equal pay for control room operators, but not coming to a clear agreement to meet the union's claim.
- Accepting that firefighters should be considered 'associated, professional and technical' workers - one of the government's categories for employees - rather than manual workers.
Government statisticians already put firefighters in the professional category. The concession paves the way to a new formula for pay increases in the fire service.
But it does not answer the central question of what pay firefighters and control room staff should be on now. In 18 hours of negotiations there was no discussion or mention of a figure for pay.
FBU members at a mass meeting in London on Friday of last week wanted to know why their negotiators had not insisted on putting the level of pay at the top of the agenda. The London regional committee of the FBU voted by 17 to three on Friday against suspending this week's strikes, a decision endorsed by the mass meeting. Activists in London then tried to contact other regions.
'It was great to hear the result in London,' said Andy Brickles, secretary of the FBU in the East Midlands. 'It boosted the feeling here, which was already strongly against calling off the strikes. We voted 17 to nil (with two abstentions) at the regional committee to keep the strikes on.'
'We were able to let activists in other regions know.' At the same time there was a determined drive from the top of the union to talk up what had been achieved in talks and win the idea of suspending the strike. The national union issued a circular on Saturday morning talking of considerable progress in negotiations.
Different regions heard varying interpretations of what had happened. Some were told that the employers were going to make an offer on the level of pay that was not tied to 'modernisation' - attacks on working conditions and the fire service.
Others, such as London, heard that the employers were determined to include strings in any offer, but that the union would be able to interpret references to modernisation in a way that suits members.
The result was confusion and, often after lengthy arguments, most regions agreeing to suspend strikes or to leave the final decision to their executive member on Monday.
Even where regional executives or committees went along with calls from the national union to call off action for 'one last round of talks', there was still a groundswell of opposition on stations.
In most areas outside London, the East Midlands, Yorkshire and East Anglia, rank and file firefighters were not given the opportunity to raise their voices at mass meetings.
'The region may have gone along with this,' one firefighter in Newcastle told Socialist Worker. 'But it is not going down well on the stations. Everyone I've spoken to says there is a majority for going out now.'
Another added, 'We are supposed to be one of the non-militant areas. 'People want an end to the uncertainty, and that means taking the action we have voted for. That may not be what our leaders want to hear, but it's what firefighters and control room staff are saying, no matter what officials decide at meetings.'
Some FBU union activists are already calling for stations and brigades to strike next Wednesday if there is no acceptable offer - no matter what the union executive says.
'We need a network'
By Neale Williams, FBU secretary Eastern Command Group Three, London
THE SAME question was raised in fire stations and control rooms across the UK on Monday: 'Why are our leaders suspending action?' It's not because there is no rank and file support for going on strike. It's not because the government and the employers have caved in. They are desperate to avoid a strike, but they have not yet been forced to back down on pay.
There has been huge pressure on national FBU leaders from John Prescott and TUC leaders to call off strikes. There is the danger after calling off the first three strikes that the employers feel more confident and the FBU is boxed into a corner. The executive and FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist say there will be no more suspensions of strike action.
The calls from the employers, government, TUC and media to do that next week will be great. The employers know that. They are cutting down the FBU's room for manoeuvre by saying they could make an offer as late as next Wednesday. There is deep frustration among rank and file union members. We should not let that frustration turn to cynicism. That can only strengthen the employers.
The last two weeks have shown us that we cannot leave the future of our pay campaign in the hands of the executive.
In at least five regions last week activists and local officials were able to win a clear position against calling off the strikes. In others the voices from the stations did not find their way through. The national union was able to coordinate winning its position.
There was not enough organisation between activists in different regions to win ours. We need to build that organisation. We need to be in a position to demand mass meetings to make sure our executive members reflect what we want. We need the level of organisation that can call such meetings from station level if region or brigade committees will not.
We need a network that can spread news of decisions and action in one area to others around the country. That kind of rank and file organisation will be crucial whatever the outcome of talks this week and possibly next. If the national union does call a strike we will have to make it effective and build solidarity.
If we end up considering a revised offer from the employers we want to be able to communicate what the rank and file in different brigades think. Rank and file FBU members have been the backbone of the pay campaign through unprecedented demonstrations and rallies over the summer. Our voice needs to be heard loud and clear as we reach the most critical stage.
'Modernisation' is an attack on fire service
THE government and the employers are determined to ram through attacks on working conditions and the provision of fire cover. The Bain inquiry, set up by the government, is due to bring forward an interim report as early as next week.
The Local Government Association, representing councils, has made a submission to the inquiry that shows the employers' true agenda. It calls for reducing the number of firefighters on duty at night - getting rid of 'constant crewing' - in order to save money.
It says, 'The principal obstacle to the more flexible deployment of resources is the requirement for constant crewing at fire stations throughout a 24-hour period. 'It may be true that new standards of fire cover could be introduced within the existing conditions of service, but the cost would certainly be far greater than if the requirement for constant crewing levels was removed.' It also makes the fake argument that the current shift system is the reason why there are so few women firefighters.
It calls for new disciplinary regulations to reduce access to appeals. It even has the nerve to accuse the FBU, which has led the way in tackling discrimination in the fire service, of 'inhibiting the development of equalities policies'.
This is a wholesale attack on conditions, dressed up in hypocritical arguments about equality and modernisation. 'The union has always said we will fight any attempt to take away our conditions,' says Del Godfrey from Essex. 'It is dangerous and kidding yourself to say we can turn the modernisation agenda of the employers around in talks.'
Red Watch, the rank and file paper for FBU members, has produced a new bulletin. Phone 07973 521 594.