FIRE BRIGADES Union (FBU) officials and reps were meeting throughout this week to discuss their pay campaign. Those meetings of core members of the union expressed a renewed determination to win a clear-cut victory after the government has shown it can be budged. There were loud calls that the union nationally should maintain the momentum it has built up over the last few months.
And there were blunt warnings not to throw away the mood of rank and file members by conceding ground or getting bogged down in long-running talks. Several FBU regions backed a lobby of this week's pay talks. The East Anglia regional committee met on Monday. It passed a resolution saying that unless all four points of the FBU's pay claim were met by Sunday 3 November then the union should go ahead with the eight-day strike beginning on Wednesday 6 November.
East Anglia region includes the Essex brigade, which has respect in the whole union for striking twice in recent years against cuts. Essex brigade FBU secretary Graham Noakes told Socialist Worker, 'We do not feel we have had a satisfactory explanation from the national union for suspending the action.
'But people have cautiously accepted that decision. What we are now saying is that the union should stick by its claim - which includes parity for control room operators and retained staff, as well as a new pay formula. I can only hope that the executive has its eyes wide open. Everyone I've spoken to is clear that this is about winning what we deserve on pay and not about negotiating pay tied to worsening conditions.'
A similar message came from other meetings across Britain and Northern Ireland. National executive members at them faced questioning ranging from 'a frank exchange of views' through to a 'two-hour grilling'. The north west region, which includes Manchester, agreed a form of words on Monday saying: 'The pay claim of £30,000 still stands and any settlement will be made on a no-strings basis. It was also made clear that the executive committee should not cooperate in any way with the Bain inquiry' - the sham review set up by the government to push through attacks on firefighters' conditions and the fire service.
It went on to say that if talks between the FBU and the employers were conditional on 'modernisation' then 'the executive committee should be reconvened and the strike days reinstated'. Bob Pounder, Manchester brigade secretary, said, 'We had a packed meeting of the brigade committee and agreed there must be no backsliding. 'We are upping the importance of a demonstration we had already called in Manchester for this Saturday.' The executive of the London region called a meeting open to all FBU members in the capital for this Friday.
Linda Smith of the London Regional Executive said, 'The active involvement of the members is what has made this campaign. It should not stop now. They need to hear directly what happens in the talks with the employers.'
Jim Barbour, FBU executive member for Northern Ireland, spoke to Socialist Worker after a strike committee meeting on Monday. He said, 'The government has been forced to give way on talks just hours after John Prescott said there would be no negotiations. But that is far from the end of the matter. They face a choice this week. Pay up or face the wrath of our members. We got a 96.6 percent vote for strike action in Northern Ireland. People are in no mood to compromise. We have support group meetings throughout this week. The message from the Northern Ireland wide strike committee was unambiguous: be prepared to strike next Wednesday.'
Andy Brickles, an official in the East Midlands region, said, 'Most people went along with suspending the strikes only so long as the talks came up with the goods. 'At the end of this it has to be seen as a trade union win.' By Monday evening FBU headquarters issued a press release in which general secretary Andy Gilchrist said:
'We have suspended our first two strikes to allow meaningful talks on pay to take place with our employers. Our position on Bain and his discredited review remains. We will not be discussing the outcome of his review and he will not be attending any talks with the FBU. Our claim remains at £30,000 for a professional firefighter and emergency fire control operator, with full pay parity for our retained members and a new pay formula for the future.'
Still solid despite media lies
THE MEDIA began churning out propaganda against the firefighters as soon as they returned a nine to one vote for strikes. 'Despite that, public support for us remains high,' says Ian Foulkes from the Merseyside FBU committee. 'I don't mean loaded questions in opinion polls, but the response firefighters are getting on stations.'
Adrian Clarke, secretary of the FBU in Cambridgeshire, says, 'There has been a vitriolic campaign against us, but it was to be expected and it has not succeeded. We know that from standing on the streets petitioning and putting our case across. Ours is not a militant area, but support for the strike inside and outside the fire brigade remains high. There's a slogan coming through which I'm starting to use now: 'We want to negotiate, but we don't want to capitulate.' Working people in Britain have the worst rights in Europe. There won't be a problem raising firefighters up again if we have to strike next week.'
'Our executive must have anticipated the propaganda campaign from the other side when we went into this,' says Neale Williams, who represents firefighters in nine stations in north London. There was no wobbling over the strike among the rank and file. The time people got worried was when this week's strikes were suspended and people did not know why.'
Retained (part time) firefighters at two retained stations in Derbyshire all left the anti-strike Retained Firefighters Union to join the FBU last week.
Keep up pressure from below
THERE IS no groundswell of calls from FBU members against striking. The 12 percent who voted against action are clear they will go along with the overwhelming majority - as has happened in recent strikes in Essex, Merseyside and Derbyshire. But the TUC is certainly applying constant debilitating pressure on FBU leaders to accept any shoddy compromise with the government. So are leading Labour figures, playing on the party's links to the unions.
TUC leader John Monks had to come out in support of the firefighters on Tuesday last week after government ministers said there would be no new money to meet a pay rise. But Monks had opened the door to that by insisting behind the scenes that the FBU limit its strike action to such an extent that it would in effect mean working normally.
Monks publicised a discredited agreement made between the TUC and the ailing Labour government in 1979. Then, after a meeting of the TUC general council, he had to say it was no longer relevant. The overriding purpose of the TUC's five-strong 'contact group' is to prevent a fire brigade strike no matter how poor the government's offer to the FBU. FBU national officials are going to continue to come under pressure.
'There's a coordinated campaign from above to influence our leaders,' says Neale Williams from London. 'We need that kind of coordination at the bottom of our union to push what we want.'
'Modernisation' is the same old trick
THE government wants to tie any pay award to attacks on working conditions and on the fire service. The Local Government Association and the government's Audit Commission have both submitted demands to the Bain inquiry for changing firefighters' shifts to reduce fire cover at night.
That opens the way to dangerous cuts and to making firefighters work even harder. Their workload has already doubled over the last 15 years. Employers and the government also want greater privatisation in the fire brigade.
The firefighters' battle is not only about pay. It is at the centre of defending the public sector over the coming months as New Labour demands 'modernisation' in the fire brigade, the health service and in education.
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