The Merseyside firefighters’ strike against cuts and management bullying was at a critical turning point on Tuesday of this week as Socialist Worker went to press.
The firefighters have been striking against a neo-liberal “modernisation” plan promoted by the fire authority that would see 120 frontline firefighter posts axed - some one in ten of the workforce - along with 15 emergency control staff and four night-time fire engines.
But underlying these headline issues is a deep well of bitterness against a management culture of bullying, victimisation and union busting presided over by the region’s chief fire officer Tony McGuirk.
The regional fire authority was set to meet this week to discuss proposals drawn up by Fire Brigades Union (FBU) negotiators aimed at resolving the long running dispute.
If the authority accepts the FBU proposals, it could pave the way to a settlement before the weekend. But if it rejects them, it would represent a significant ratcheting up of the dispute on the part of the employers.
The Merseyside firefighters have been striking since 31 August.
Their current action was due to end at 10am on Thursday this week, but the union has announced another eight days of strike action to start immediately thereafter.
Some 1,000 FBU members have been out on strike - but McGuirk has organised a team of around 170 strike breakers, comprising former firefighters now in administrative roles and the non union firefighters that make up a “special rescue team”.
Strikers say the strength and solidity of their action has forced employers back to start serious negotiations and created divisions between the fire authority, which is composed of councillors from Merseyside’s five councils, and the chief fire officer.
The fire authority had initially refused to bring in national negotiators from the FBU and dragged their feet over entering negotiations. But they finally agreed to talks which took place last weekend.
It is believed that the councillors are pressing for a swift resolution of the dispute, but that McGuirk is intent on maintaining a hardline stance with the aim of breaking the FBU on Merseyside.
Firefighters are determined to stay out until McGuirk is forced to back down. “We’ll go back when we’re ready to go back,” said Brian Hurst, FBU branch secretary at Croxteth fire station. “We’ve gone too far to accept a watered down deal.”
In particular, Brian told Socialist Worker that the grassroots would not accept a settlement that did not lift the suspensions brought by the fire authority against three striking firefighters. “As a union we walked out together - and we’ll walk back in together,” he said.
Despite being out for the best part of a month now, the strike shows no signs of flagging. Morale among strikers has risen as they have exercised their collective power and stood up to management.
“The strike has been very strong. There’s no sense of wavering,” said Kenny Gore, another striking firefighter.
He added that the issues fuelling the dispute - cuts to public services and bullying management - would be familiar to many workers across the country.
If the fire authority backs down this week, it will be a victory for firefighters and a victory for working people everywhere. A win would demonstrate that a solid, hard hitting and effectively indefinite strike can force even the most intransigent employers to draw back.
But if the authority rejects the FBU’s proposals, the striking firefighters will need a massive wave of support from across the workers’ movement to make sure they are not starved back to work. Their will to win cannot be doubted - but solidarity will be the crucial issue.
Send messages of support to Merseyside FBU, 50-54 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L3 5UN. Donations to Merseyside Hardship Fund, HSBC bank, sort code 40-29-28, account 91320165.