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The fire last time

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DEEP DISILLUSIONMENT with a Labour government. Firefighters stage a national strike as they spearhead wider opposition to low pay. A government that trade unionists got into office now sets about breaking a popular group of workers.
Issue 1823

DEEP DISILLUSIONMENT with a Labour government. Firefighters stage a national strike as they spearhead wider opposition to low pay. A government that trade unionists got into office now sets about breaking a popular group of workers.

Familiar? The year is 1977, when the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) launched its first and only national strike – until now. It was an indefinite strike, which began in November and continued over Christmas for nine bitter weeks. It ended with the Labour government and the employers forcing the firefighters back to work after a staggering betrayal by the TUC and the wider trade union movement.

The ‘Old Labour’ government was determined to beat the firefighters. The previous year it had accepted a budget called for by the International Monetary Fund. It meant bigger cuts than anything achieved by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Wages also fell. Prime minister James Callaghan told the FBU’s executive three weeks into the strike, ‘I must destroy you.’

The strike actually forced the government to concede a link between firefighters’ pay and earnings in industry. But that only brought significant rises years later. The immediate impact in January 1978 was a sense of defeat for every trade union activist. It left intact the Labour government’s policy of pegging pay rises to less than inflation.

That fed the demoralisation that would allow Margaret Thatcher and the Tories in over a year later. There are very important differences between 1977 and today’s campaign by the FBU. But there are similarities – not least that the outcome of the FBU’s strike will again decisively shape every looming battle between this New Labour government and working people.

What happened 25 years ago holds vital lessons. The firefighters were as popular as they are today. But they were starved of the financial support and solidarity action needed to win.

Their own union leaders did everything possible to undermine the strike. That is a big difference with today. FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist, the union’s executive and officials have initiated this fight. They have encouraged a vibrant campaign that has brought thousands of FBU members to demonstrations and mass meetings. One of the great myths about the 1970s is that powerful ‘union barons’ constantly ordered strikes.

In fact delegations of working firefighters at a special FBU conference overturned their leaders and called the strike in 1977 by a two to one vote. Terry Parry, then FBU leader, said the executive council would oppose the strike ‘with everything we’ve got’.

He continued to obstruct the strike for nine weeks, holding secret talks with local authority employers. That gave TUC leaders a further excuse to leave the firefighters to struggle alone. The TUC conference in September 1977 had passed a policy opposing the government’s drive to cut wages. Firefighters were among the lowest paid workers and regularly worked a 48, 56 or even 64 hour week.

That did not stop a majority of union leaders voting at TUC meetings in December and January to hang the firefighters out to dry. This included figures from the right, such as Frank Chapple of the electricians, and those who had enjoyed a left reputation, such as Hugh Scanlon of the engineers.

All put loyalty to the Labour government above solidarity with the firefighters. It relied on that treachery because the government’s own efforts to break the strike floundered. It used the army to provide a scab service, which it knew was incapable of protecting people.

That meant letting people burn to death in the hope of launching a witchhunt against the firefighters. The government and newspaper barons had succeeded in using similar tactics years earlier to intimidate power workers into abandoning industrial action. ‘The government hoped to mobilise the force of public opinion against the strike,’ the Financial Times reported.

‘The view was, apparently, that many deaths which arose from inexperienced and ill-equipped troops being unable to cope would be blamed by the public on the strikers rather than the government.’ The propaganda won over some of the least union-minded workers. But public opinion largely stayed with firefighters.

For example, two small children died in a hotel fire in Southend, Essex, four weeks into the strike. The children and their mother, Joy Livermore, had been placed in the hotel by Southend social services. It was substandard and a fire inspection days before the strike had uncovered serious risks.

Joy told local firefighters, ‘You’re not to blame,’ and called on them to ‘hold out till you get what you want’.

How sides square up today

WE AGAIN face a Labour government preparing to use the army and filthy propaganda against the firefighters. It wants to break them to hold the line against pay rises for other public sector workers and to drive ahead with wholesale privatisation.

It has set up an inquiry into fire service pay to try to head off the strike. There were three inquiries in the seven years before the last strike – fire service pay fell by a fifth throughout that period. This time the government faces a rising mood of resistance, not union activists facing one defeat after another.

That spirit is reflected in the election of the new generation of left union leaders, dubbed ‘the awkward squad’ by the government. RMT leader Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka of the civil servants’ PCS union, and others have called for financial support and active solidarity for the FBU. Minority

But those union leaders are still a minority of the TUC. Pro-government leaders are already badmouthing the FBU’s campaign. Active solidarity by rank and file trade unionists in every union is critical. It can throw the pressure back on the government and right wing union leaders. It will encourage the left wing ones to organise as much solidarity as possible and press ahead with other struggles at the same time.

The 1977 strike showed that public support is not enough if it remains only passive. Firefighters today have several other advantages. Unlike in 1977 most station officers will be part of the action, control room staff are at the centre of it, and more retained part time firefighters are set to strike too. And one factor looms above the rest.

This government faces an unprecedented movement against its drive for war on Iraq. That has the potential to isolate Tony Blair politically, just as he gambles on beating the firefighters.

Picket power

They went out to get support

SABOTAGE FROM the top of their union meant rank and file firefighters had to go into overdrive to keep the strike going. They organised collections at major workplaces and a host of other initiatives. A network of rank and file activists produced a bulletin, ‘Daily Strike News’, which became the main way strikers could find out what was happening.

Firefighters in Glasgow produced a leaflet for distribution to troops. There were, and are, draconian laws against calling on troops to disobey orders, so the leaflet was very carefully worded.

It said, ‘Would it surprise you to learn that 340 firemen are seriously injured on duty every year, compared with 384 soldiers in Northern Ireland? ‘Have you heard that a fireman’s real wage, taking in inflation, has fallen 20 percent in the last four years?

‘Do you realise that the majority of firemen would support higher wages for soldiers, and for that matter for every underpaid worker? ‘After reading this do you think it would be in the public interest (a) for the government to continue using you to do firemen’s work? (b) for it to settle with the firemen?’

The FBU and other union leaders threw away opportunities to build solidarity. Brian Murphy, a Birmingham post worker, was sacked after complaining that management was trying to use post workers for overnight ‘fire watches’. The postal union did nothing and Dick Foggie, FBU assistant general secretary, said, ‘Far from objecting, it is what we would expect responsible management to do.

‘The FBU is aware that white collar council workers in the Nalgo union are being paid overtime for firewatching duties – this is clearly essential.’ National union leaders also tried to isolate firefighters from socialists and trade unionists who had experience from other strikes. They issued an instruction ‘to keep radical factions from infiltrating the picket line to cause trouble’.

Pickets across Britain ignored it. Eddie Bassant, secretary of Enfield FBU in north London at the time, said, ‘The strikers themselves are certainly welcoming anyone who turns up to give support. Even the full time officials are saying the same. The instruction has already been forgotten.’

The solidarity was enough to sustain the strike. But it was not on a sufficient scale to break the stranglehold at the top.

RedWatch The voice of rank & file firefighters and control staff
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS ANDY GILCHRIST ‘People in this union have lifted themselves up’ TONY BENN ‘Take your case to the people’ GET YOURS Phone 07973 521 594


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