IMMENSE AND dogged pressure by firefighters has forced their union leaders to stop a headlong retreat in the face of employers' demands to slash conditions. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) executive last week voted unanimously to reject the employers' wording on new arrangements for night shifts and bank holidays.
FBU leaders were to go into the union's reconvened conference in Southport this week arguing for a ballot for action short of strikes over the issue. That followed an earlier executive meeting in which only three executive members backed union general secretary Andy Gilchrist's position of taking the employers' formula as the basis of a settlement.
'This is a very welcome, if belated, development,' says Justin Thomas from the FBU in Wiltshire. 'There was huge anger two weeks ago when the union president ruled the executive could not take this issue to conference and executive members narrowly voted to cave in to the employers. The turnaround is due to sustained rank and file pressure. It is also a result of the employers sensing weakness and upping the stakes. FBU members in Wiltshire are delighted that we've stopped the retreat. They are saying they don't just want a vote for industrial action, but for strike action as well. There really is a chance to stop the rot. That means no more playing games. The lesson of the pay dispute is that we need to keep the pressure up on our national officials.'
That was the feeling in other brigades-anger with the employers, relief that the union was not capitulating, but also fear that the union's leaders will look to call off action and reach a shoddy compromise.
This week's FBU conference was set to debate the whole issue of the pay dispute. It was set to hear strong calls for strike action and building on the current dispute over 'stand down' time to try to recover ground lost under last year's deal.
'We have an opportunity now to stop all this,' says Neale Williams from the FBU in north London. A lot of damage has been done by the leadership's retreats. There is a lot of cynicism. It is vital that that does not go in a negative direction. The victory for rank and file pressure last week is something every activist needs to build on. It's right to be angry. It's no point getting demoralised. The recent action in Manchester and nationally in support of suspended firefighters there shows the rank and file still have the stomach for a fight. We are going to have to systematically organise pressure and action if we are to prevent ourselves being led to the top of the hill only to be marched back down again.'
The conference was due to discuss changing the union's political fund to end the monopoly enjoyed by the Labour Party. Bitterness with Labour among firefighters is greater now than even at the height of the strikes 18 months ago. It is leading many activists to discuss how to build a political alternative to New Labour. Respect's fringe meeting at the FBU conference when it was suspended last month attracted about a quarter of delegates.
The FBU leadership, which defended the link with Labour throughout the pay strikes, has created cynicism and frustration on stations. That has led some FBU members to argue against any political engagement by the union. Retreating from political action by the union-at elections and through vital campaigns such as the Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism-would be a backward step.
FBU activists Adrian Clarke and Linda Smith both stood for Respect in last week's elections. They report that their campaign captured the imagination of many rank and file firefighters who had had enough of Labour but were desperate for someone to speak up for trade unionists.