FIREFIGHTERS AND control room staff are heading for their first national strikes for 25 years. They are at the forefront of a mood for action over pay across the public sector. Over 10,000 firefighters blockaded the streets outside parliament on Monday as their employers refused to come up with a reasonable pay offer at last ditch talks.
On the same day firefighters in about 30 brigades in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northants, Norfolk, Suffolk, Bedfordshire and other areas took industrial action without a ballot and answered only 999 calls. Confidence, determination and the spirit seen on anti-capitalist protests such as Genoa and Seville shone through the rally outside Westminster Central Hall. It was less a lobby, more like a siege.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) will hold a special conference next week to agree to have a ballot for national strikes. The message was the same from every group of firefighters and control room staff on Monday: 'We are up for it.' Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary, told the cheering rally, 'The employers have again refused to tell us what you are worth. They are talking of a 4 percent increase and an inquiry. And they want to link that to attacks on conditions. Your conditions are not up for grabs or discussion. We have exhausted the opportunities for talks. We now have a different approach. Your annual conference passed a resolution instructing us what to do. The executive committee has just met and has decided to recall the conference with a recommendation for national strike action over pay.'
That was greeted with wild applause, cheering and shouts of, 'Out, out, out!' A recent poll found two thirds of people believe firefighters are underpaid and 71 percent support their claim for an increase to £30,000 a year. The Ministry of Defence said on Monday that it is training 650 extra troops to scab on the strike in addition to 2,000 who are already trained. The battle lines are being drawn. Everyone should back the firefighters.
'OF COURSE no one chooses to strike, but we've had enough. Support for action has grown and grown over the last few months as we've campaigned. Our pay has fallen behind under the formula devised 25 years ago. The public support us.'
ALAN BLACKLEE, firefighter from Cleveland
Welcome words, time for action
LEFT WING general secretaries from other unions were at the firefighters' rally. Bob Crow from the rail workers' RMT union sent a clear message. If the FBU is on strike, his members will not be working on certain categories of stations, which include the tube.
Mick Rix from the train drivers' Aslef union told the rally, 'If safety is to be compromised then we won't be driving the trains as well.' Jeremy Dear from the National Union of Journalists said there is money to pay the firefighters' claim because 'in the last 25 years thousands of millionaires have been created. The rich have had tax breaks. What kind of society hands millions to speculators in the City of London and denies our firefighters and control room staff a living wage?'
Billy Hayes from the Communication Workers Union said, 'We never hear there's not enough money to bomb and kill people. If there is enough money to go to war, there is enough money to pay the firefighters.'
All those speakers pledged financial support for any firefighters' strike. Billy Hayes and Mick Rix told Socialist Worker that the firefighters could be 'absolutely guaranteed' wider trade union support.
Those words should be matched by every trade union leader at the TUC next week, and they should all turn them into real acts of solidarity.
Driven from jobs
THE government's own Audit Commission is warning of an exodus of public sector workers. Many are leaving because they are disillusioned with long hours, low pay and constant pressure from managers.
The commission found that nearly 80 percent of people who leave public sector jobs say that bureaucracy and paperwork are reasons for going. That red tape is a result of an endless stream of initiatives from the government, which are usually tied up with the private sector.
Nearly 70 percent of workers were driven out by the lack of resources, which stopped them from doing jobs such as teaching, nursing and social work effectively. And one in three said low pay was the major reason.
It's not a fair cop
A FULLY qualified firefighter gets just £21,531 a year. There are no extra payments for working shifts round the clock. They do a 42-hour week. There are no annual salary increments. And firefighters risk their lives every single day.
Control room staff get 92 percent of a firefighter's pay. One in five full time firefighters are forced to take a second job to survive. Police constables outside London are on £23,323 a year for a 36.2-hour week - before whopping overtime pay, which home secretary David Blunkett preserved in his review of police pay.
After 14 years police on the bottom grade are on £29,062 basic. Police in London get £6,111 extra for working in the capital and free transport within a 73-mile radius. The Fire Brigades Union is calling for a rise in basic pay to £30,000 a year.
The spirit of revolt
FIREFIGHTERS GOT a glimpse of their power and of the energy of rank and file union members at this week's rally. Thousands of them followed activists carrying the FBU's London region banner for an impromptu march. The police, all smiles before then, tried to stop them, but were brushed aside. Traffic ground to a halt as thousands of firefighters sat down outside parliament.
Neil Macpherson, secretary of Mid and West Wales FBU, said, 'The executive of the union has initiated this campaign and done a very good job. The mood of confidence has now grown up from the grassroots. People are in no mood to accept a poor deal. It's not just us. I was out on a job with two paramedics. They said they hope we win, because if we do they will be up for a fight over pay too.'
THERE ARE a series of pay disputes across the public sector. Tube workers voted by four to one this week for strikes over pay.
Their action is closely linked to resisting privatisation and attacks on safety standards, which led to a one-day strike by members of the RMT union in July.
ACTIVISTS ARE arguing to reject a shoddy deal agreed by their union leaders after a magnificent one-day strike of over 750,000 workers in July. In London council unions have given employers until next Thursday to come up with a major increase in allowances for working in the capital.
There is talk of a one-day strike on 1 October, the day of Tony Blair's speech to the Labour Party conference, if that does not happen.
MEMBERS OF the Natfhe union return to further education colleges in England and Wales this week. They are still in the middle of a national pay dispute. The employers made an insulting 1.5 percent offer, which led to a two-day national strike earlier this year.
Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney called for a strike on 1 October before the summer break. But there are suggestions from union officials of delaying any strike until after 5 November. College support staff are also balloting for strikes over pay.
LECTURERS AND support staff remain in dispute over this year's pay award. Support staff in the 'old' universities (ones that were not previously polytechnics) in London are balloting for strikes over London allowance payments. They could also take action on 1 October.
THE GOVERNMENT wants to worsen and extend the payment by results scheme it imposed on teachers in England and Wales. At the same time it has not met union calls for easing bureaucracy and workload. The campaign for a £6,000 London allowance payment, which led to a highly successful strike before Easter, is continuing.
There is a mood for further action. But there is also a serious danger that union leaders will abandon the campaign. All these disputes are a sign of the mood for action over pay. There is so much support for the firefighters because everybody feels under the same pressures.
That general feeling has also fuelled calls for united action by the unions. The teachers' strike before Easter encouraged council workers in London to take action over the same issue. The strike by tube workers coincided with a national council workers' strike and was all the stronger for it. Action by several groups of workers on, say, 1 October, would strengthen every fight and increase the pressure on the government.