Firefighters on Merseyside are in a crucial battle against plans by the local fire authority to ram through a package of cuts - dressed up as neo-liberal “modernisation” - that would axe 120 frontline firefighters posts, some one in ten of the workforce.
Around 1,000 firefighters, members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) started eight days of strike action at 10am on Thursday of last week. The strike, which was ongoing as Socialist Worker went to press, was due to end at noon on Friday of this week.
The government has declined to provide soldiers for emergency fire cover during the strike, as it has done in the past. It says its forces are too busy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead Merseyside’s chief fire officer, Tony McGuirk, has put together a team of strike breakers from non union staff and former firefighters now in administration or management jobs.
Many of these have not driven a fire engine for years, strikers say.
The FBU argues that McGuirk is not simply trying to axe jobs and appliances in the region, but has a wider anti-union agenda.
“It comes down to the chief fire officer trying to bust the FBU on Merseyside,” says union brigade chair Mark Dunne.
Socialist Worker visited the picket line at Croxteth fire station in the suburbs of Liverpool on the first day of the industrial action. Brian Hurst, FBU branch secretary at the station, explained how strikers took the initiative to set up a picket line there.
“Croxteth is the base for a special rescue team that was set up to deal with terrorist attacks,” he said - a team that is now being deployed to break the strike.
“The management are using this team to drive a wedge between us, so we felt it was important to set up a picket line.”
The pickets were in good spirits and receiving plenty of support from passing cars tooting their horns.
“I’ve been a firefighter here for 20 years,” said Chris Wilson, branch chair at Croxteth. “I live in this community with my family and we all want a properly run and professional fire service - that’s what we stand for.
“These cuts are to us and to our community.”
The strikers drew a parallel between what was happening to the fire service locally and the way the NHS has been restructured and
They described a management culture where money was diverted to public relations projects and high salaries for senior officers, while the service on the ground was being run down.
Some 500 striking firefighters met on the first day of the industrial action at what had been planned as a brigade
committee meeting, but was soon extended and moved to a larger room.
The meeting was attended by FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, national executive members and rank and file representatives from across the country - a breadth that reflected the national significance of the dispute.
These included delegations from Humberside, Manchester, Newcastle, Avon, Lancashire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, Nottinghamshire, Berkshire and South Yorkshire.
A dozen firefighters came down from Scotland to show solidarity with the Merseyside strikers.
These included Alan Paterson, brigade secretary at Grampian FBU.
“We’re here because of our fears for Grampian and other brigades,” he said. “What will happen here in Merseyside will have an impact on us all.
“It’s a matter of time before they try to propose ‘efficiency savings’ - cuts - elsewhere.
“All chief fire officers will be looking with great interest to see the outcome here. This dispute will determine their level of confidence in taking on other brigades.”
At the meeting Matt Wrack announced that the FBU would hold a national demonstration in Merseyside to highlight the issue of cuts, though a date for this had not been set as Socialist Worker went to press. The decision to hold a demonstration represents a shift in strategy on the part of the FBU executive.
Rank and file activists have been pressing for such demonstrations to head off the danger that local regions may be left isolated to fight cuts alone.
Union officials in Merseyside said they were delighted by the strength of the strike across Merseyside.
“It’s absolutely solid - a thousand FBU members are taking part,” brigade chair Mark Dunne told Socialist Worker on the day the action started.
“Public support has also been overwhelming - we couldn’t have asked for more. They understand the issues, and they understand that these cuts mean more dangers for firefighters and more dangers to them as the public.”
“The feeling we’re getting back from branches, departments and sections is that they’re willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and take on this fire authority and the chief fire officer.”
The strike action has pushed the fire authority into talks with the union that started last weekend.
Previously the management had refused to negotiate seriously over the proposed cuts.
Talks break down
Talks between the FBU and Merseyside fire authority aimed at resolving the industrial action over cuts broke down on Tuesday when the management unexpectedly walked out and refused to agree a date for further meetings.
“We’re very disappointed they walked out of the talks today without warning,” said Les Skarratts, Merseyside FBU brigade secretary. “At first I did not know they had done it until I’d sat in the room for a while and then realised they were not coming back.”
An FBU spokesperson added, “Positive talks on Saturday were a result of both sides showing they were willing to move during negotiations. That went into reverse gear yesterday, with the fire authority backtracking in several key areas including axing four fire engines from city centre stations which they have now removed.”
“Clearly something happened after the constructive talks ended on Saturday which hardened the fire authority’s position. We don’t know why they are reneging on what they outlined on Saturday, but they clearly are and now they have walked out completely.”
This arrogance on the part of Merseyside fire authority underlines the contempt they have for firefighters and control room staff. It also highlights the necessity of the union movement rallying behind the striking FBU members to ensure their unequivocal victory.
Donations should be sent to Merseyside Hardship Fund, HSBC bank, sort code 40-29-28, account number 91320165. To obtain copies of the rank and file firefighters’ RedWatch leaflet, email firstname.lastname@example.org