By Kevin Ovenden
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‘There is fury at what Blair, Brown and Prescott have done. I will never forgive them’

This article is over 19 years, 1 months old
HARDER, MORE determined, and disgusted with John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. That was the mood among 52,000 firefighters and control room staff as they learned that the government had scuppered negotiations and forced them into an eight-day strike.
Issue 1828

HARDER, MORE determined, and disgusted with John Prescott, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. That was the mood among 52,000 firefighters and control room staff as they learned that the government had scuppered negotiations and forced them into an eight-day strike.

Their bitterness grew on Monday when Tony Blair arrogantly ruled out a pay rise for firefighters unless there are cuts to the service they provide. From Inverness to Belfast and down to Plymouth there were effigies and banners attacking what one firefighter in Somerset called ‘the three stooges who are running the country’.

And as Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members took to the picket line, there was another feeling too – of tremendous support from other groups of workers and the public. ‘It’s an unbelievable response from the public,’ Iain Ballantyne, a firefighter at Castlemilk station in Glasgow, told Socialist Worker.

He, along with half a dozen other firefighters and the same number of supporters, was collecting in Castlemilk shopping centre on Saturday: ‘The government has forced us to strike. The public understand that. We are getting so much support. We collected outside Scottish Power yesterday, and are going to Weirs and other workplaces. We are now in a battle where the government is out to destroy the FBU.’

‘The government’s intervention has galvanised even those who were most unsure about striking,’ said Steve Oram, an officer at Clarkston station who was also collecting in Castlemilk. ‘I was in the 1977-8 strike. Once again we face a Labour government sticking the boot in. People have definitely hardened. A lot of them are now saying we should just go out and stay out.’

Brian Smith, a shop steward in the council workers’ Unison union, was also collecting. ‘We had a union meeting of 60 people, and support for the firefighters was unanimous,’ he told Socialist Worker.

‘Some of those at the meeting are on as little as £10,000 a year. But they knew that a victory for the firefighters would mean they were more likely to improve their pay.’ A few hours later over 2,000 FBU members and their supporters rallied in the centre of Glasgow.

They heard blistering attacks from platform speakers on Prescott, Brown and Blair. Eddie Riley, secretary of the civil servants’ PCS union in Scotland, said, ‘This is now a fight for the whole trade union movement. We are called dinosaurs. Well, the only dinosaurs alive today are those that sit in the Houses of Parliament enjoying a 40 percent rise. There will be no repeat of the miners’ strike of 18 years ago. If this government wants to throw the entire weight of the state against the FBU then it will be met with the entire weight of the trade union movement.’

As he spoke collections, protests and rallies were taking place across Britain and Northern Ireland. About 250 people rallied in Coventry. Speakers from the FBU, Red Watch (the rank and file paper for firefighters) and from other unions could barely be heard as passing traffic hooted in support. Phil Jordan, secretary of the FBU in the south west of England, has just ripped up his Labour Party membership card. He says, ‘People are now saying our claim is for £30,000 and we should soldier on to get it. Whatever happens over talks, or talks about talks, there is a growing realisation that we are in a hell of a fight.’

THE GMB general union funded excellent whole-page adverts backing the firefighters in the national press on Monday. Two examples from Bristol show the level of financial support that can be won. The Communication Workers Union in Bristol has donated £4,000. The South West Region of the MSF union has given £1,200. Everyone can organise something.

‘Me and another student persuaded two firefighters to come with us to a Billy Bragg gig and collect,’ says York University student Jon Maunder. ‘We got £150 for the strike fund. The firefighters were invited backstage, and afterwards Billy Bragg and his band came to the picket line.’

TUBE BOSSES sent home 28 workers last week for raising concerns about health and safety. On the same day they sent a full passenger train on the Piccadilly Line to check whether reports of smoke were a sign of a fire.

The drivers said they were happy to be at work but not to take out trains without rescue cover.

Transport secretary Alistair Darling told the cabinet last week that he was working with tube bosses to send out letters to 350 drivers who had refused to take out trains during the first FBU strike.

The RMT union members on the tube are balloting for strikes over their bosses’ attempts to discipline workers for protecting safety. Union activists are organising collections for the firefighters. The government fears solidarity for the firefighters from other workers, and action on health and safety grounds.

Voices from the picket lines

‘Now mobilise the support’

‘PEOPLE ARE absolutely fuming at what has happened,’ says Andy Brickles from the FBU in the East Midlands. ‘They heard talk of a deal on Wednesday night and then find out that we are forced out the door on Friday. Everyone is blaming the government. There is one simple message every FBU member should understand – we have got support, but we have got to go out there to mobilise it. We’ve had invitations coming in from all sorts of union bodies to go and speak to raise our case, finance and solidarity. Responding to each invitation is a top priority. We are addressing reps at the big Royal Mail depot in Chesterfield. No one should forget that people like that have industrial strength.’

John Lee from Chesterfield station told Socialist Worker, ‘We collected about £1,300 in a couple of hours in the town centre on Saturday. The money is vital to sustain the hardship fund. And everyone who gives is also becoming active in our support, rather than sitting at home frustrated at the media coverage. Lastly, it is a huge boost for FBU members. You can feel isolated if you are just bombarded by the media. Seeing real people support you is an answer to that.’

Andy Brickles adds, ‘We want to spread the experiences from those picket lines that are best organised in winning support to the rest. ‘Other trade unionists can help us. Get the collections up and running, and the invites into your workplace. Get down to the nearest picket line. The bigger the trade union activity, the quicker we will win.’

Labour cards torn to pieces

‘THIS IS my baby daughter’s first Christmas,’ Alec Naughton from Inverness station told Socialist Worker as he carried a home-made banner attacking Blair at the Glasgow rally. ‘I should be remembering it for that reason. Instead I will always remember it because I’ve had to go on strike. I’ll never forgive this government for that.’

There are reports from across Britain of people tearing up Labour Party membership cards and asking why their union gives money to Blair’s party. There were cheers for Phil McGarry, organiser of the RMT rail union in Scotland, at the rally in Glasgow when he called for the trade unions to go further in cutting funding to the Labour Party.

‘We should definitely be opening up the political fund so we can back parties like the Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party,’ says Mark Simmons from Kent. Firefighters in Coventry report a steady stream of people filling in forms to opt out of the part of the political fund that goes to New Labour.

Deal fell short

THE DRAFT agreement hammered out by local authority employers and the FBU leadership in the early hours of last Friday was too much for the government. John Prescott pulled the plug on it because the government would have had to cough up some extra money to fund it.

‘But had he accepted the draft agreement, and had the union suspended the eight-day strike, then very many rank and file FBU members would have found that unacceptable,’ says Dave Cain, secretary of the FBU in East Anglia. The agreement was for a 4 percent pay increase backdated to 7 November of this year. Further increases, and a new pay formula, over the next 12 months were to be tied to agreement on ‘modernisation’.

The document called for ‘binding adjudication’ on ‘modernisation items’ where the employers and union were unable to agree. That means the union would have to accept whatever a panel composed of three people from the government’s Audit Commission, the TUC and a third ‘independent’ came up with.

Two rises of 3.5 percent next April and November, and a further 3.5 percent rise under a new pay formula, were all to be linked to agreement on modernisation. Ian Leahair, secretary of the FBU in east London, says, ‘There is deep concern in my area about this agreement.

‘People are saying to me that our claim is for £30,000, and that’s what we should be pushing to the fore.’ ‘People are not happy about the media being able to present 16 percent, or £25,000, as the top end of what we can expect to get,’ says Andy Brickles from the East Midlands.

‘We all voted for a campaign for £30,000, and for parity for control operators and retained firefighters.’ The draft agreement did not include parity for control staff and says there would be an appendix on pay for ‘the new retained structure once agreed’. Activists point out that the biggest problem with the proposals is that they do tie pay to modernisation – though not as stringently as the government wants.

There was clearly also unease at the top of the union with the agreement. Five members of the FBU executive voted against accepting it as the basis for further negotiations and suspending strikes.

‘We need to send a clear message from the rank and file to the top of the union that this is not a good enough package,’ says Andy Brickles. ‘There should be mass meetings across the country to discuss how we up the dispute, and also to debate this draft. ‘There is pressure from the government on our union’s leaders. We need to make sure they are accountable to the rank and file.’

THE GOVERNMENT commissioned a report last year which did talk about creating a truly modern fire service. The Pathfinder report called for a doubling of the fire service budget to £3.8 billion and an increase in the number of firefighters. New Labour refuses to publish the report.

A plan for cuts

THE so called ‘modernisation’ the government wants to impose on the fire service equals cuts. Blair and Brown are saying there will be no new money to fund any pay increase above 4 percent. Anything above that figure will have to be paid for from existing fire service budgets.

The demands from the government and its stooge inquiry led by Sir George Bain show where those cuts will fall:

  • Bain called for fewer firefighters on duty at night, even though most fire deaths take place between the hours of 2am and 5am.
  • Changing the shift system is about reducing the number of firefighters and making those who are left work longer hours. Firefighters already work 48 hours every eight days.
  • Bain said whole time (full time) firefighters should be on call on their days off. That would clear the way to cutting the number of firefighters.
  • Getting firefighters to do the work of paramedics means slashing the ambulance service.
  • Merging ambulance, police and fire control rooms means getting fewer people to deal with more emergency calls. Cleveland fire authority tried to close its control room and transfer the work to a new centre run by the ambulance service. The dangers of doing that became clear twice last year when the new centre had to be evacuated. Had the fire control room been based there as well then both emergency services would have gone down.
  • Getting whole time firefighters to work in crews alongside retained (part time) firefighters is a route to cutting the number of full timers and casualising the job. It is also dangerous. An investigation into the deaths of two firefighters in South Wales two years ago found that bringing in part timers to a full time crew on a rolling basis had broken the teamwork that is built up when the same people work alongside each other daily.
  • Working overtime systematically means less time to spend with family and friends, and increased stress. Long hours are dangerous in any industry, and especially so in firefighting.
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