THE firefighters’ dispute has highlighted the depth of opposition to New Labour among ordinary people. But it has also shown that opposition needs to be much more sharply focused and organised.
Andy Gilchrist and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leaders made a terrible mistake by calling off the next eight-day strike at the beginning of this week. Public support for the firefighters remained high on Monday, with over 40 percent backing the strikes. Support among seven million trade unionists was even higher. That was clear from the remarkable collections for the firefighters reported all over the country.
It was also shown in the enthusiastic response in countless workplaces when this Saturday’s demonstration was announced at the end of last week.
Don’t fall for government lies No one should fall for the lie – poured out by the government and most of the media – that the firefighters cannot win. For all Blair’s bluster, he hadn’t banked on a drawn-out dispute. Troops were working 12 hours on 12 hours off during the eight-day strike. Army officers report low morale.
The government wants those 19,000 soldiers training and in the Middle East quickly in preparation for its war on Iraq. Nor did Blair count on the strength of support for the strikes both inside the FBU and in the wider trade union movement.
No partnership with a bully Millionaire-owned papers and governments always say workers cannot win. But we should not forget their panic two weeks ago when the strike started. Rabid columnists were writing then about why the firefighters must not win. Throughout history workers have won against even determined governments and employers.
They have done so by recognising how serious the other side is and raising the battle on their side to match. Workers cannot beat Blair with one hand tied behind their backs. TUC leader John Monks (with his heir apparent Brendan Barber) is tying one hand of the whole trade union movement behind its back.
He backed this Saturday’s demonstration, but spent then piled pressure on the FBU to call this week’s strike off. Monks attacked FBU leader Andy Gilchrist for rightly saying New Labour does not stand up for ‘real Labour values’.
The TUC has banged out the same humdrum message for five years – partnership with the government, partnership with the employers. But you can’t have partnership with the bully who is attacking you.
You can’t rely on the union leaders Suspending this week’s strike has confused activists inside the FBU and made it harder to strike again. Above all, it has damaged the drive to build solidarity. It left union activists trying to build Saturday’s demonstration in far worse circumstances than they had expected.
It left the press able to say that FBU leader Andy Gilchrist had realised ‘the error of his ways’ over the weekend in daring to criticise the government’s priorities.
Workers cannot simply leave their battles in the hands of union leaders. We need to build strong rank and file organisation. These are lessons every worker in Britain needs to draw. Few firefighters expect an acceptable offer out of talks, and they may strike again in two weeks time or in the new year.
And other groups of workers will certainly be forced to strike. They have to avoid the calls to moderate their action in the vain hope that a nasty government does the same.
WHETHER IT is over the war on Iraq, the assault on the firefighters or other New Labour policies, many trade unionists are asking a simple question. Why the hell are the unions bankrolling a party that is sticking the boot into us?
Many firefighters are refusing to pay the union levy that goes to Blair’s party. There is a desperate need for a socialist alternative to New Labour. Increasing numbers of trade unionists believe unions should be allowed to back genuine socialists rather than New Labour having a monopoly on political donations.
At this year’s FBU conference Andy Gilchrist and the union leadership argued against the idea that the political fund should go to any party other than Labour – such as the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party. But that is exactly the sort of socialist organisation that is needed now. It can draw links between each struggle.
It can also provide the core of counter-pressure on union leaders not to blunt opposition to the government and the employers.
‘IT IS vital for the trade union movement to rally support for the FBU. We must resist the attacks on public services, and the vicious attacks on trade unions and individual leaders. We need to make Saturday’s march a major demonstration of support for the firefighters.’
Bob Crow, RMT general secretary
‘WE’VE written to all our branches urging people to give support to the firefighters. This Saturday is a good opportunity for Unison members to express solidarity with the FBU.’
Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary
‘THE most immediate responsibility of the trade union movement is to get behind the FBU. The CWU is instructing all our branches to twin with FBU branches. Of course we will be on the march on Saturday.’
Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary
Pride is a protest