THE government is desperate to avoid a confrontation with 55,000 firefighters and emergency control room staff. That's why it went from accusing the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) of 'Scargillism' on Wednesday of last week to sending deputy prime minister John Prescott into talks with union leaders the following day.
But FBU members in scores of meetings at the beginning of this week doubted whether those talks would deliver and were preparing for a strike next Wednesday. New Labour's retreat has nothing to do with concern for public safety. It is still prepared to put lives at risk by using a wholly unsafe army strikebreaking force if firefighters strike next week.
The government's decision to go for talks is about fear that firefighters could become a focus for wider solidarity and trigger a general revolt over pay. So it conceded negotiations between fire brigade employers and the FBU on Wednesday and Thursday of this week-something the union has been calling for all along.
But the government still wants to curtail any pay offer. There were mixed feelings among FBU members and activists at the start of this week over union leaders suspending strike action in return for talks. Regional and brigade officials reported a sense of confidence that New Labour was seen to climb down from its aggressive position.
But there was also widespread confusion that the FBU executive had taken pressure off by cancelling both the 48-hour strikes planned for this week. Many experienced activists were angry that valuable momentum might have been lost if firefighters do still have to strike next Wednesday for eight days. 'People can understand calling off the strike planned for Tuesday into Thursday so talks could take place,' Graham Noakes, secretary of the FBU in Essex, told Socialist Worker on Sunday.
'But calling off the Saturday to Monday strike does not help to pressure the employers. And it happened so suddenly. Our regional committee meeting was told on Friday night that we were pressing ahead. Then people found out, largely from the media, on Saturday evening that the first two strikes were off even though there was no concrete offer from Prescott or the employers. The campaign has been fantastic up to now, with a lot of rank and file involvement. We are still in a strong position, whether the employers and government concede substantially this week or not. But we still have to be prepared to fight hard.'
FBU members were to lobby talks between union leaders and employers in London on Wednesday of this week to send out that message. Ian Leahair is the FBU area secretary in east London. He told Socialist Worker last weekend, 'No one should be in any doubt. The feeling on the stations is that we want a clear victory. The government's retreating. There is no reason for the union to. The strength of feeling is so high that firefighters in my area talked about taking action anyway this weekend if the talks do not deliver. The government and the employers should understand that. So should our union general secretary and executive. There's no wobbling among the rank and file.'
Solidarity fears shake New Labour ministers
THERE IS clear evidence that the government, despite the media's claims, is worried by the level of solidarity firefighters can get. John Prescott hinted at it, according to FBU union insiders. Health and safety reps and shop stewards across Britain report an unprecedented feeling that, because of safety fears, people were not prepared to work normally on fire brigade strike days.
Calls from the union leaders-from the rail unions through Amicus to the GMB-for reps to press bosses over safety have encouraged that mood. London Underground bosses had to soften their hardline stance over workers' safety fears last week for fear of triggering walkouts if they victimised staff for not working normally.
Senior managers in the civil service adopted a similar approach. And the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is represented on the government's strikebreaking Cobra committee, has been inundated with queries about safety in the event of a fire brigade strike.
HSE managers sent out an outrageous memo to safety inspectors on Monday night. It anticipated next week's strike would go ahead, and instructed inspectors to 'report immediately' to senior managers any cases where workers were not prepared to work normally on safety grounds.
That information would then be passed on the Cobra committee. The memo tries to make inspectors, in effect, the 'eyes and ears' of the government's strike and solidarity busting operation.
Wider union support and solidarity for the firefighters remain vital. So does raising rank and file involvement and confidence inside the FBU. Whatever ground the government is forced to give in talks it will seek to recoup-either from attacking firefighters' conditions or turning on another group of workers to prevent anyone else from repeating any FBU success. The firefighters may be forced to strike. Other groups of workers definitely will be.