FIREFIGHTERS AND control staff have picked themselves up from a year of knockbacks by voting for a fresh strike ballot over huge attacks on their conditions. Delegates to the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference in Southport last week voted by 27,349 to 24,353 against effectively caving in to the employers' demands.
Instead they decided on a strike ballot from 30 July if money outstanding from last June's pay deal is not paid. Local authority employers, backed by the government, have been holding back a 3.5 percent increase since last November. They want to use it as a bargaining chip to win further concessions from the union. They have also refused to guarantee that an additional 4.2 percent rise due on 1 July will be paid.
It is not only a 7.7 percent pay rise that is at issue. Conference delegates were clear that the whole future of the union is at stake. "If the employers can just get away with whatever they like, then many firefighters will ask, 'What's the point of the FBU?'" said Alan McClean from Nottingham.
"Many of us weren't happy with last year's deal, but now the employers are reneging on even that." FBU leaders have done their best to come to a deal with the employers, despite rank and file pressure to fight.
The position they argued at the conference was to put the employers' demands out to a ballot of the membership without a recommendation to accept or reject. In the context of widespread demoralisation and cynicism most delegates argued that was a recipe for throwing the towel in and blaming the members for it.
The leadership's position was defeated after a long debate in private session, which saw fierce criticism of its handling of the whole two year long pay campaign.
Steve Ainley from Nottinghamshire, who moved the successful resolution, told Socialist Worker, "This is a real step forward. We have now spelt out the issues-7.7 percent and ending the arrogant way the employers have dismissed the union. They have six weeks to cough up. We have six weeks to build up the spirit to fight. No one is saying it will be easy, but we've got to go for it. Any offer the employers come up with has to be put to a recalled conference. That is important as it means the membership, through its conference delegates, will get to decide whether it is acceptable or not."
Emma Carr, a firefighter from Cambridgeshire and a representative of the union's national women's committee, said, "The key thing is for the whole union to unite around the policy. People are sick of the employers doing what the hell they like. Setting a new strike ballot is part of us saying we are going to put a stop to it. The work to deliver a confident vote for action starts now."
The conference also voted by about three to one to disaffiliate from the Labour Party (see pages 4 and 5). "That decision was correct in its own right," says Neale Williams from the FBU in London. "But it is also important in lifting the mood of union members in the run-up to a possible ballot. It is saying that we are not going to have a rerun of the dispute 18 months ago where the link with Labour was used to undermine our action. These conference decisions show there is still fighting strength inside the FBU. Activists are going to have to go flat out to mobilise it. The majority of our national leaders will, on past form, try their best to avoid a confrontation. We've stopped a headlong retreat. Now we've got to start going forward again. It means taking the arguments to every watch and station, and ensuring that the voice of the most confident areas is heard whether through official or unofficial channels."
Andy Brickles, secretary of the FBU's East Midlands Region, said, "We've made a decision. It's up to everyone to get behind it, including areas where people said no one was up for a fight. We've got to spread confidence. There is now an advisory group, which is closer to the rank and file than the executive and which the leadership is meant to consult. I want to see that beefed up and made to work. It is part of members feeling that we are serious about a fight. I'd also like to see the negotiating team widened. It is vital that representatives of the more confident brigades are invited into other areas. What we are talking about is regaining the spirit that marked the start of our national dispute in 2002."
Redwatch, the rank and file paper in the FBU, has produced a special bulletin available by phoning 07973 521 594.