FIREFIGHTERS AND control room staff were in confident but angry mood in the run-up to their union's recalled conference in Manchester this week. They are confident as indications flood in from across Britain that 55,000 FBU union members are prepared to vote overwhelmingly to strike over pay.
They are angry because the government is taking a hard line in an effort to stop firefighters heading a wider revolt against low pay in the public sector. Tony Blair said last week that meeting the FBU's claim would 'do terrible damage to the economy'. His government minister Nick Raynsford arrogantly announced a 'review' of fire service pay, even though FBU members have rejected that along with their employers' insulting 4 percent pay offer.
Incredibly, Lord Bain has been chosen to chair the review. He headed the Low Pay Commission which lived up to its name by setting a minimum wage of just £3.60 an hour with a lower rate for young people. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist says, 'Our members are clear that they deserve the going rate for the job they do today, which is £30,000, and we are therefore not going to get caught up in a so called independent review of the fire service.'
The firefighters' pay fight is heading towards a confrontation with the government that will be very important for everyone. Bob Crow, leader of the RMT rail union, has told rail managers to meet union concerns about safety in the event of a firefighters' strike. It is a step towards a dispute with London Underground, the Tyne and Wear Metro and the Merseyside network which would allow RMT members to ballot for strikes alongside the FBU.
Mick Rix, leader of the train drivers' union, Aslef, has written a similar letter to mainline train operating companies. The army unit nearest the Channel Tunnel, based at Shorncliffe, said the army would 'definitely not cover tunnel emergencies'. Aslef and the RMT have rightly said their members will not work in the Channel Tunnel if safety is compromised.
This is the kind of solidarity that every union leader should be raising and acting on now. Every trade union member can build the momentum behind the firefighters by inviting FBU members to speak at their workplace and union meetings. Firefighters know they face a serious battle with the government. FBU activists are already engaged in a healthy debate about whether to go for a series of stoppages or an immediate indefinite strike.
There is no doubt that indefinite action would put the government's army scab plan under huge strain, just at the time when it is looking to deploy troops in the Gulf.
The bigger the vote for strike action and the greater the active support for the FBU's campaign, inside and outside the union, the more confidence firefighters will have to take action that can win quickly.