SOME 55,000 firefighters and control room staff were to receive ballot papers on Friday of this week for the first national strike in the fire brigade for 25 years. Union activists are organising to return the highest yes vote they can. Stations and appliances across Britain are festooned with flags, posters, stickers and other pay campaign material.
Some 3,000 Fire Brigades Union (FBU) union members rallied in Birmingham on Monday, as well as around 1,000 more in Newcastle. The ballot closes on 18 October, and strikes could begin a week later. A leaked Ministry of Defence document last week revealed that the government is prepared to risk people's lives by relying on a scab army force. The paper said that 19,000 military personnel could be mobilised using clapped-out Green Goddess engines from the 1950s.
But only 12,500 would be on the front line. That is to replace 35,000 frontline firefighters. The leak shows the problems the government has organising scabbing on a strike by the FBU.
But it also shows it is prepared to do that - training for army scabs began in August, six days before talks between the FBU and the employers collapsed. There is anger on fire stations and in control rooms over rumours that the government might use emergency powers to ban strikes if they take place during a war on Iraq.
Yet at the same time there is talk of the government conceding a significant pay rise. The FBU is rightly responding to these mixed signals by pushing for a big strike vote.
Leaders of the RMT and Aslef rail unions are already looking at how their members can take action over the health and safety implications of a firefighters' strike. Moves for a vote for action on firefighters' strike days are under way by RMT members on London Underground, Tyne and Wear Metro, and Merseyside's Metro network.
RMT headquarters has received calls from reps on the mainline railway for similar steps to halt work when there is no professional fire cover. This action is crafted to get round the restrictive anti-union laws, but it could lead to a sharp confrontation with the employers or the government should they seek to have it outlawed.
The more trade unionists get firefighters into their workplaces now and begin the argument for solidarity, financially and over protecting health and safety, the stronger the FBU and other unions will be if it comes to a gloves-off fight with New Labour.
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