OVER 2,000 firefighters and their supporters converged on Belfast from around Northern Ireland and Britain as the firefighters' campaign for decent pay hotted up last weekend. This latest Fire Brigades Union (FBU) demonstration had the same confident and vibrant spirit shown on previous demonstrations on the streets of London, Glasgow and other cities.
One firefighter from Derry told Socialist Worker, 'It's amazing to see this level of solidarity at home. It feels more like Seville or Genoa than Belfast.' The FBU is to hold a mass rally in London on Monday of next week. If the employers (and, behind them, the government) do not give way at talks that day there will be a special conference of the union on Thursday 12 September to agree a ballot for national strikes.
A firefighter from Lisburn on the Belfast march explained what is powering the mood for a serious fight. He said: 'Our income is based on a formula developed after the last national strike we took. That means that in the last 25 years we have received a pay increase of £7,500. We can't live like that any more. we want a real pay rise.'
'I've been to a few of these demonstrations but this has to be one of the best,' said Paul, a firefighter from Lancashire. 'We are getting confidence from the people watching us march down here today, and we are starting to give them confidence to think about what they're getting paid.'
John from Newcastle said: 'This is putting to rest the legacy that Margaret Thatcher left on workers. This is only the beginning of the fightback, and you can feel the confidence that we have just on this demonstration.'
'I joined to help people, and I can't help people if I find it too expensive to get the bus to work or put food on the table,' said Karen from County Down. 'Some people I have met in the last six months have put most of their working lives into the fire brigade, and barely get £20,000 to support them and their families. They survive on benefits. Others don't even get benefits. I don't want to live like that.'
Collin is from north Belfast, scene of recent sectarian violence. He said, 'Every night I put my life on the line. We get missiles thrown at our crews and abuse hurled at us, and I get paid a pittance for the work I do. The other night a colleague of mine was hospitalised when he responded to a house fire. But action like this gives me confidence to know that there is another way, and that we are stronger united.'
Peter Bunting from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was one of the speakers at the rally following the march. He said, 'Those in power refuse to give us decent pay, yet these are the same people who cosy up to the likes of WorldCom and Enron.'
The FBU's pay campaign is extremely significant. A victory would not only be a major step forwards for firefighters and control room staff. It would also spur calls from other groups of workers, particularly in the public sector, for an end to low pay.
Defeat for the firefighters would harden New Labour's confidence to curb pay and impose privatisation. The battle will come to a head this autumn. The union is preparing for strikes. The government has drawn up plans to use the army to scab just as Tony Blair is looking to send troops to the Gulf.
FBU national rally, Monday 2 September, 12.30pm, Westminster Central Hall, London (Westminster tube).