Socialist Worker

Safety through solidarity-it's our fight too

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1823

TONY BLAIR is putting lives at risk. But trade unionists the length of Britain are organising to protect the safety of themselves and the public, while standing in solidarity with the firefighters and control room staff. Even the government virtually admits that its 'alternative fire service' run by the army is wholly inadequate.

The 800 Green Goddesses run at half the speed of fire appliances, carry no specialist equipment, cannot pump water above the second floor, have ladders less than 32 feet long, and are up to 50 years old. The government has forced the firefighters' strike. It vetoed an offer by fire brigade employers of 16 percent in July.

New Labour, not the Fire Brigades Union, is being 'criminally irresponsible', the insult government minister Nick Raynsford directed at firefighters. So are employers who want to force workers to accept unsafe conditions for political reasons during the firefighters' strike. The crazy safety plan by north London's Camden council is to issue a memo asking if any staff have 'firefighting experience'. The right wing press is sneering at the safety concerns of millions of workers across Britain.

Yet these are the same papers that said, for their own hypocritical reasons, that oil tanker drivers should not work for safety reasons during the fuel protests two years ago.


What you can do

  • DEMAND now that your employers come up with a risk assessment. You, your health and safety reps and union do not have to agree it. No one should be working in unsafe conditions. Get together with your workmates to refuse to do so during the firefighters' strikes. You can turn up to your workplace but refuse to work on safety grounds. It is not going on strike - you do not need a ballot to stay within the law.
  • GET firefighters into your union and workplace. Get workmates down to the fire stations to show solidarity.
  • TWIN your workplace with a fire station or control room. Contact other trade unionists and set up a firefighters' support group.
  • START collecting for the firefighters' hardship fund. Don't let financial hardship break them.


Firefighters are united in battle

SOME 16,000 of the 18,000 retained (part time) firefighters in Britain are members of the FBU and voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The union's pay claim includes retained firefighters. It is calling for them to get the same hourly pay and equivalent benefits. Retained firefighters have struck solidly alongside their colleagues in recent strikes against cuts like in Essex. The so called Retained Firefighters Union has about 1,000 members. Its leaders have said they will break the strike.

But they are incapable of providing a serious service. Helen Hill is a retained firefighter in Avon. She is a mother of four, an FBU member, and runs a home for adults with learning difficulties as her full time job. She told Socialist Worker, 'No retained firefighter chooses to strike. Just like our full time colleagues, we have been forced into it by the government. That's a damn disgrace. This is about the government trying to break the unions.'


Calendar of strike dates

FBU MEMBERS voted by an incredible 87 percent on an 83 percent turnout for strikes. The executive have called them for the following days. All strikes begin and end at 9am.
Tuesday 29 to Thursday 31 October.
Saturday 2 to Monday 4 November.
Wednesday 6 to Thursday 14 November.
Friday 22 to Saturday 30 November.
Wednesday 4 to Thursday 12 December.
Monday 16 to Tuesday 24 December.

OTHER UNIONS have set strike dates in their pay disputes over the next four weeks.
Saturday 2 November: rail workers on Arriva Trains Northern and train drivers on First North Western. The drivers will be striking the following day as well. Both the major rail unions, Aslef and the RMT, have called 48-hour strikes over the weekend on First North Western up to the end of November.
Tuesday 5 November: further education college lecturers and support staff strike in England and Wales.
Thursday 14 November: lecturers and support staff in all of London's universities are to strike over London allowance payments. Members of the Natfhe, Unison, AUT and Amicus unions are also to strike.
Tuesday 26 November: teachers in London are to strike over allowance payments.

Members of the two main teachers' unions, the NUT and NASUWT, are balloting alongside each other.


Unions put lives first

HEALTH AND safety legislation says every worker has a duty not to put themselves at risk. Section seven of the Health and Safety at Work Act places that responsibility on employees. And every worker feels a moral duty not to put the travelling public, school students, service users and fellow workers at risk.

Refusing to work or take on duties on health and safety grounds is not secondary action. It is the basic right of every worker, even if they are not in a union. Derek Simpson, newly elected leader of the Amicus union, rightly says, 'We will encourage any groups of workers whose safety is legitimately compromised by lack of fire cover to leave work.

'This would not be secondary action. It would be an evacuation.' Amicus has members in car plants, factories, chemical works, and across industry. Dave Prentis is general secretary of the Unison union, which has a million members in local government, education and the health service.

He has issued a circular throughout the union calling on union members 'not to undermine the FBU in any way, and as a general principle... not take on work which would in normal circumstances be done by FBU members'. Employers have a legal obligation to come up with revised assessments on account of the firefighters' strike.

Mark Serwotka, leader of the civil servants' PCS union, has sent a circular to its 1,200 branches urging them to demand management does fire risk assessments. Mark also told Socialist Worker, 'Every union should be throwing their weight behind the firefighters, particularly the leaders of the TUC. 'The FBU's claim is absolutely justified.' The NUT, Bectu and most other unions are also demanding employers look at safety risks.

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' Natfhe union, told Socialist Worker, 'Many colleges have tower blocks. Evacuation procedures for wheelchair users above the second floor are to put them in a refuge area and wait for a fire appliance with a long-reach arm. 'The Green Goddesses will not be able to get them out. That means those buildings are unsafe during a fire brigades strike.'

Bob Crow of the RMT union and Mick Rix of Aslef have said the tube, and underground networks in Liverpool and Newcastle, will be unsafe without professional fire cover. Executives of these unions were meeting this week to debate closing those networks on safety grounds. London Underground is closing 19 stations on FBU strike days, which effectively acknowledges the tube will be unsafe. Union and safety reps on the tube are already organising to stop the tube next week. They are mobilising under the slogan, 'I don't mind working - I do mind dying.'


Ministers got cash

DEPUTY PRIME minister John 'Two Jags' Prescott says a 38 percent pay rise for firefighters is 'fantasy'. But the hypocrite led the charge in the cabinet to get a 40 percent pay increase.

When Blair delayed the ministers' rise for fear of bad publicity, Prescott accused him of acting like 'Jesus Christ'. The cabinet got their cash straight after last year's general election.


Fat cats got cash

THE AUTHORITATIVE Incomes Data Services organisation released a new survey of company directors' pay on the day the FBU's ballot result was announced. It found that average pay of the top executives of the 100 leading companies on the stock exchange 'passed the £1.5 million mark for the first time'. The survey looked at 1,900 directors in Britain's top 350 companies. It found the value of the shares amounted to some £6 billion.

Those payments on top of salaries amount to £3.2 million per director. Nearly a fifth of all directors surveyed got total cash rises of over 25 percent.


...thanks to Blair

THE GAP between directors' pay and their employees' has widened under New Labour. Directors were getting 11.5 times their workers' pay in 1994. It stood at 18 times higher last year. That is without considering share options and other perks.


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Sat 26 Oct 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1823
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