Firefighters on Merseyside have walked out on strike for another eight days in what is shaping up to be a crucial struggle against neo-liberal cuts in the fire service and management attacks on the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
The strike involves some 1,000 FBU members battling plans by the fire authority to slash £3.5 million from their budget by axing 120 frontline firefighter posts - some one in ten of the workforce - alongside cuts to fire control staff and equipment.
The firefighters walked out at 10am on Tuesday and plan to stay out on strike until Wednesday of next week. The latest action follows a previous eight day strike by Merseyside FBU that took place between 31 August and 8 September.
Morale among the strikers is high, with strong showings at picket lines - despite harassment from the police - and steadfast support from the general public.
Merseyside FBU brigade chair Mark Dunne spoke to Socialist Worker on Tuesday as the strike was starting. “It’s absolutely 100 percent solid - a successful walkout to start the eight days of strike action,” he said.
Talks with the fire authority have stalled, with the chief fire officer Tony McGuirk refusing to bring in national negotiators from the FBU to help resolve the dispute, he added, in contravention of local agreements.
“We believe the reason for that is McGuirk’s hidden agenda of union busting,” said Mark Dunne. The FBU has put in an emergency motion to the TUC conference in Brighton highlighting and condemning these tactics, he added.
“Our members are even more angry and even more determined to fight,” he said. “In the three days that we’ve been back at work since last week’s action we’ve seen more provocation and more intimidation from management.
“Union bulletin boards have been taken down and FBU literature thrown in skips. The union is being attacked both locally and nationally.”
The FBU was set to host a national demonstration on Friday, in support of the Merseyside strikers in Liverpool. Invited speakers included four union general secretaries - Matt Wrack of the FBU, Bob Crow of the RMT, Tony Woodley of the T&G and Billy Hayes from the CWU.
Support and solidarity from across the labour movement will be essential if the Merseyside firefighters are to successfully resist the fire authority’s attempts to force through cuts and break the union.
The union has already received pledges for thousands of pounds to its hardship funds and was expecting a huge turnout at Friday’s march and rally, says Mark Dunne.
On Monday the authority officially announced its proposals to “create a more efficient fire service”. The proposals confirm the union’s predictions of job cuts and “necessary budget savings”.
The bitter dispute has escalated over the past week as Merseyside fire authority has stepped up its war of words against striking firefighters.
McGuirk has organised a group of 170 strike breakers made up of former firefighters now in administrative and management roles, together with non union firefighters who make up a “specialist rescue team” set up as part of the “war on terror”.
In a calculated insult to strikers on Friday of last week, McGuirk shipped out the 170 strike breakers for a two hour “briefing session” at Aintree racecourse - while at the same time refusing to negotiate with the FBU until the eve of the strike.
“They can make time for drinks and nibbles, but are too busy to meet and thrash out a deal to end a fire strike,” commented Les Skarratts, brigade secretary of Merseyside FBU. “They are behaving as if they are relishing this dispute rather than looking forward to resolving it.”
The government has declined to provide army cover for the strike, citing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Territorial Army reservists in the region are away on a training exercise in Kazakhstan.
In a bizarre outburst last week, McGuirk claimed that the region was safer with firefighters on strike. The strike breakers had been fitting more smoke alarms than usual, he said in an e-mail to fire authority members, and this meant “it could be argued that public safety has improved”.
This comes on top of revelations from the New Zealand Firefighters Union (NZFU) about the extent of McGuirk’s plans to undermine the FBU on Merseyside.
In a letter to FBU solicitors, Derek Best, national secretary of the NZFU, described a meeting with McGuirk in New Zealand around a year ago.
The chief officer “said he had already enticed a number of firefighters away from the FBU by getting those firefighters to become new elite teams”, he wrote.
Crucially these “elite teams” involve “co-responding” - firefighters using equipment that would normally be used by trained ambulance personnel. Such work is against FBU national policy, and the firefighters who joined the specialist teams were expelled from the union.
The fire authority has encouraged these firefighters to take legal action against the union, according to Derek Best. McGuirk “stated that this assistance went to the extent of funding those persons’ legal costs”, the letter reads - though the fire authority denies these claims.
One of the specialist units is based in Croxteth fire station in the suburbs of Liverpool - a station that has seen strong and lively picketing. The fire authority now plans to extend this unit, while cutting 18 regular firefighter posts at the station.
Send solidarity messages to Merseyside FBU Brigade Office, 50-54 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L3 5UN, phone 0151 702 6915, fax 0151 708 5901.
Donations to Merseyside Hardship Fund, HSBC bank, sort code 40-29-28, account number 91320165.
The RedWatch rank and file firefighters’ group has a leaflet on the Merseyside dispute. To obtain copies email firstname.lastname@example.org