RENEWED determination swept through fire stations and control rooms as members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) heard that their union has called a snap strike on Tuesday. Some 100 FBU brigade secretaries and other officials met at the TUC headquarters on Friday of last week.
They heard the government was insisting on the worst deal yet in the eight month long pay dispute. ‘The government has taken a hard position,’ said Micky Nicholas, who represents black and ethnic minority FBU members on the union’s executive. They are ‘offering’ us 4 percent this year, but only if we sign up to the package of cuts in the Bain report. That’s worse than the 4 percent without strings they offered before Christmas. There’s talk of a further 7 percent from November. That will not be for everybody. It will only be for those deemed to have achieved extra skills, and is again conditional on us accepting 4,500 job losses and a host of other attacks. It’s really bitter news for every firefighter. At least now we know where the government stands.’
‘It’s clarified things,’ said Neil Macpherson from the FBU in Mid and West Wales. ‘Many members had hoped that suspending strikes would get us something through talks. There really is no alternative but to fight.’ It was the same message from every brigade and region of the union.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said the union was now prepared for a long drawn out dispute with the government.
He and the executive are to meet next week to come up with a strategy for further strikes-most likely of 24 and 48 hours-to put to another meeting of local officials on Friday. Two 48-hour strikes, beginning on 28 January and 1 February, were already announced before the new year.
Andy Gilchrist said, ‘The government has to look at the problems it will have with long weeks or months of strikes.’ FBU leaders also told the reps’ meeting there would be no more suspension of strikes without a ‘substantial offer’ on the table.
Tony Blair faces immense problems. The latest strikes come just as Blair tries to back George Bush’s deeply unpopular war on Iraq. The British military is under strain.
Already 1,000 of the 19,000 troops used to cover the firefighters’ strikes last November have been dispatched for the Gulf. Any attempt by the government to accuse the firefighters of ‘undermining the war effort’ is fraught with danger. The firefighters have popular support-the war does not.
That will not stop New Labour trying. Blair has set a course for war at home and abroad.
FBU officials and executive members say privately that stringing out the dispute-through shorter strikes over a longer period-is designed to make the most of the political problems that can erupt in the government’s face. ‘Who would have expected the furore over Cherie Blair?’ asked one.
Another said, ‘There are all sorts of rumblings over a range of issues. ‘Events such as the Edinburgh fire last year suddenly showed how right we are to reject cuts to night-time fire cover.’ ‘There’s no doubt events can play in our direction,’ Ian Foulkes of Merseyside FBU told Socialist Worker.
‘That’s because we are telling the truth. The public and other trade unionists have come to recognise it. There are dangers in a long dispute. You can end up losing more money because you don’t hit them hard at the beginning. The main thing now is that we go out to our own members and to the wider trade union movement and explain that we are in one hell of a hard fight.’
Andy Brickles from the FBU in the East Midlands told Socialist Worker, ‘I’ve spoken to people in all five brigades in this region. ‘The overwhelming feeling is that we have to fight. There is not a big feeling for going all out now. We did lose some momentum through going through the talks process. We’ve got to get that momentum back up. Crucially, we’ve got to reactivate and build on the solidarity we got when we were out. Announcing a number of 24-hour or 48-hour strikes is a step forward. But we have to be prepared to shift gear when things happen that create more serious problems for the government. We can’t just rely on that. We have to begin explaining now how we can move to stepping up action and to winning wider trade union support. It’s life or death for us now. The stakes are pretty high for the government too.’
‘I didn’t expect anything to come through talks and suspending strikes,’ says Ian Leahair, FBU area rep for east London. ‘Now everyone can see that nothing has come of it. The government and employers have upped the ante and there is no turning back. We ain’t having 4,500 job losses. We are going out for all four points of our pay claim and to defend the fire service. The last two months have shown us that that message needs to come from every section of our union, loud and clear, with no hesitation.’
THE firefighters can win. There was a wave of support for the 48-hour and eight-day strikes at the end of last year. The firefighters are standing up to a government that is hellbent on slashing the service and inflicting a defeat on a key section of public sector workers.
London’s tube workers took a brave stand during the first 48-hour fire strike in refusing to take out trains without adequate fire cover. Wider solidarity is needed now. It cannot be left to individual trade union activists.
Leaders of the health service section of the Unison union said before Christmas that they could not consult on the government’s Agenda for Change pay package while ministers were at war with the FBU.
They should be backing the FBU by fighting over pay. No union leader should be avoiding confrontation with the government.
If the government presses ahead with rumoured threats to ban the fire strike, the TUC and other union leaders should respond with national strike action.
The FBU’s policy is for immediate action to defend the right to strike. Collections in workplaces, solidarity meetings and raising health and safety concerns all helped to create a climate of support for the firefighters when they last struck. Doing all that is vital to laying the basis for the solidarity they need to win.
THE GOVERNMENT is trying to push through new laws to implement the cuts package it wants firefighters to accept. John Prescott has drawn up plans to scrap Section 19 of the Fire Service Act, which requires central government to review and approve any move to shut stations.
The Scottish Parliament last week rejected that move. But Prescott has said he is looking to use the Westminster parliament to force through wholesale attacks on the fire service. The most aggressive local employers are not prepared to sit back during a long dispute.
The Nottinghamshire authority and its chief officer have drawn up new, worse contracts for firefighters and control staff. Nottinghamshire, and other authorities, could give 90 days notice and then impose the contracts, breaking up national conditions. ‘People have just had enough of what New Labour is doing nationally and locally,’ Alan Maclean from Nottinghamshire FBU told Socialist Worker.
‘The Labour Party cannot take the support of trade unionists for granted. Fifty five thousand FBU members voted to get Labour in. We can vote to get them out as well.’
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
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