Socialist Worker

A vital challenge for everybody

Issue No. 1823

NO ONE should have any doubt why the government is refusing to budge in the face of the firefighters. Andrew Rawnsley, the well connected political commentator of the Observer newspaper, reported on Sunday a discussion he had with 'a member of the New Labour high command just before they came to power':

'He positively looked forward to a strike by a big union. His face lit up at the prospect of showing the unions who was boss. 'We will crush them,' he smiled.' The government is out to beat the firefighters.

This is part of its attempt to stop any group of workers defending their pay and conditions. It does not care how many people die as a result. Blair knows his friends who run the media will help him blame the firefighters - people who put their own lives at risk to save others. The Sun is happily repeating his claim that the firefighters are 'holding the country to ransom'.

Outrageously, John Monks of the TUC chose on Monday to join their efforts. He dragged out a document signed by the TUC in the dying days of the last Labour government 23 years ago, and said it stopped workers going on strike without providing 'emergency cover'.

This would mean that those in the emergency services can never go on strike, however badly they are treated and whatever the provocation. TUC leaders signed that document, known as the Concordat, claiming that if workers showed restraint the employers and government would do likewise. How wrong they were was shown in the following decade when Margaret Thatcher's government set out to smash the steel workers, the miners, the print workers, the seafarers and the dockers.

This was the precondition for tearing apart public services. This has caused immense suffering and numerous unnecessary deaths, from patients left all night on hospital trolleys to passengers burnt to death in train crashes. This has continued under New Labour. Blair has pushed through the Private Finance Initiative, Public-Private Partnership and the privatisation of air traffic control - all under the name of 'modernisation'. No wonder there is bitterness across the public sector.

No wonder one group of workers after another have been voting on industrial action in the hope of stopping this juggernaut of destruction and protecting their own pay. New Labour's attitude is that most of these groups are too weak to be effective, and that it can steam ahead. It has ignored the resolution on PFI passed overwhelmingly at its own conference.

It knows the firefighters are not weak. They have immense public sympathy, despite the lies of the press. That is why it sees them as a test case. Blair believes he can wear down the firefighters, as Thatcher did the miners and the print workers. He believes he can demoralise them by press witch-hunts. There is a way to turn the tables on him very quickly. That is to turn sympathy into solidarity.

Other groups of workers who have balloted for action should coordinate their strikes with those of the firefighters. The leaders of no other group should be allowed to settle their claim until the firefighters have broken through.

We have to turn the question of health and safety against Blair. Why should workers who sympathise with the firefighters put their own lives at risk, as well as other people's, simply because Blair is out to humiliate the unions?

If every group of workers who faced such risks walked out - as they are entitled to under the law - then key sections of the economy would grind to a halt. Solidarity, which shut down sections of industry, enabled the miners to win in 1972 and 1974. It was the lack of it that led to the terrible defeats of the 1980s. Now there is the opportunity to recreate that solidarity.

This includes the 400,000 people who marched in London against war on 28 September. They too should throw themselves into organising solidarity for the firefighters. It is up to trade unionists and socialists everywhere to work flat out for it in the days ahead.

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