Some 1,000 firefighters on Merseyside returned to work last Saturday after 26 days of strike action, following an agreement over principles hammered out between the fire authority and Fire Brigades Union (FBU) negotiators.
The Merseyside dispute was sparked by fire authority plans to cut 120 frontline firefighter posts - some one in ten of the workforce - as well as axing 15 emergency control room staff and four night time fire engines.
But underlying and fuelling the dispute was a well of bitterness against management bullying and the union busting tactics used by Merseyside’s chief fire officer Tony McGuirk.
Firefighters first struck on 31 August for eight days, then walked out again from 12 September until last Saturday.
The action remained solid in the face of a concerted strike breaking operation organised by McGuirk involving some 170 non-union firefighters and former firefighters now in management or administration roles.
The fact that hard hitting action has seen off McGuirk’s tactics represents a step forward for the FBU on Merseyside.
The strike forced the fire authority to take the union seriously and negotiate.
But the agreement reached so far leaves many questions unresolved.
Firefighters will need to be prepared to take action again if the employers use the return to work as an opportunity to regroup and go on the offensive - or if their final offer is little different from that originally proposed.
“People have gone back to work with smiles on their faces,” said one striker. “McGuirk tried to smash the union, so I feel this is a victory - but time will tell.”
Though the current strike action has been suspended, the dispute is still officially on pending the outcome of more talks. The FBU is still appealing for contributions to its hardship fund.
The agreement (see below) between the union and the fire authority was reached on Wednesday of last week. It was recommended by the FBU’s strike committee to the brigade committee, which held discussions with branches on Friday before agreeing the return to work.
While the strike action has succeeded in making the employers water down their proposals and negotiate seriously with the union, the planned £3.5 million of budget cuts will go ahead.
Both sides “recognise the financial position which underlies the original proposed changes”, according to the agreement reached last week.
Mark Dunne, brigade chair of Merseyside FBU, told the local press that the strikers had been “totally vindicated”. He added that the strike “has protected Merseyside fire service for the long term”.
The feeling on the picket lines last week was also generally positive. Strikers believed their solid and hard hitting action had forced the management to retreat and draw back from its union busting agenda.
Nevertheless, questions still remain. “Obviously we’re relieved to be back at work, but it’s not over yet,” said Brian Hurst, FBU branch secretary at Croxteth station.
“There’s a lot of agreements in principle, but now they’ve got to thrash it out,” he told Socialist Worker. “There’s still a lot of distrust in the management, and a feeling that now they’ve got us back to work they might start playing games again.”
The ballot result is valid for three months, he added, so more strike dates could be called by the union if the employers try to backtrack on issues such as three firefighters who have been suspended during the strike.
Firefighters say the strike was beginning to take a toll on the strike breaking operation organised by McGuirk. The morale of the strike breakers was in tatters.
Some strikers feel there was a case for pressing home this advantage. “There’s a major concern that by returning to work we will give them a breathing space,” said Brian.
There is no doubt that the action has forced a retreat from the management. Striking solidly has proved effective in heading off an attempt to browbeat workers and break the union.
But the industrial action has not managed to stop the £3.5 million budget cuts. The cuts are being driven by the neo-liberal agenda that all three major political parties are committed to.
The FBU’s strategy in this dispute has been to apply pressure on the Labour controlled fire authority, which is made up of councillors from the five Merseyside local authorities, to rein in their chief fire officer.
While such a strategy can head off an all-out attack on the union, it needs to be combined with a wider political challenge to neo-liberalism if it is to halt and reverse the attacks on our public services.
One battle in Merseyside has been won, and workers have shown how their collective strength can beat off even the most determined of union busting employers. There is still a wider war to win.
What the deal that halted the strikes means
According to the details of the deal released so far, the fire authority has retreated from its original plans to axe four night time fire engines.
Three of the threatened appliances will remain for at least a year, pending a review, while at the fourth station a pump and an aerial platform will be replaced with a combined vehicle.
The authority will cut eight full time control room staff and add four part time posts, rather than axing 15 staff as originally planned. A minimum of seven staff will work during normal circumstances, rather than two as initially proposed.
What will happen regarding firefighter job cuts is less clear. Both sides have “accepted the principle of part time working”, according to the fire authority.
A shift system for “low level of activity and risk” stations has been agreed at three stations. Plans to extend it to two others have been dropped, pending a “further study”.
The fire authority says it is “receptive to a joint approach to a review of industrial relations to ensure future industrial harmony in the service”.
The firefighters had been pressing for an inquiry to deal with the management culture of bullying and victimisation.
Three firefighters were suspended during the action. Their fate was unclear as Socialist Worker went to press.
Send donations to Merseyside Hardship Fund, HSBC bank, sort code 40-29-28, account 91320165.