This firefighters' strike - whatever the eventual outcome - represents the opening shot in a new stormy period facing Britain. It is a fundamental turning point. Socialist Appeal has repeatedly explained that we have entered the most turbulent period internationally since the second world war. A series of general strikes have rocked Europe, from Greece, Spain and Italy. France has been shaken by mass demonstrations against privatisation. Now Britain has become affected by this changing mood, reflected by the shift to the left in the trade unions.
The working class has suffered 18 years under the Tories. The Blair government has attempted to continue where they left off in creating the "most deregulated economy in the western world". But enough is enough. Workers have reached their limits in stressed-out Britain, where they have faced attack after attack on their conditions and rights at work. After years of defeats and setbacks, confidence is beginning to return.
The ruling class is alarmed at the situation that is opening up in front of them. Unless a compromise can be hammered out soon, they fear an all-out confrontation that will spill over to wide layers of workers. This could even reach semi-general strike proportions. "This could very well escalate into a national rail dispute", stated RMT general secretary Bob Crow. "It could be the most serious industrial dispute since the 1970s." This has raised the spectre of another Winter of Discontent similar to the one faced by the Callaghan government in 1978/79.
Despite their kept press weeping crocodile tears over "our brave firefighters", they are quite prepared to wage a scurrilous campaign of slander against the strikes when it suits them. But for now the government, fearing an escalation of the dispute, have entered negotiations.
However, the Blair government is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Unless they are prepared to offer a substantial amount, they will not be able to resolve the dispute. But to do so will give inspiration to millions of low-paid workers. Behind the scenes, they are attempting to offer all kinds of partial concessions with strings, but firefighters are determined to stick out for the full claim. After the tragic death of Bob Miller, killed tackling a Leicester factory blaze, which graphically highlighted the dangers faced by crews, there has been a hardening of resolve amongst firefighters.
It is time to step up the action. The 30K claim is within reach. With determination the firefighters will win.
Many firefighters are understandably angry at the stance of the Blair government, which is acting like the Tories. A LABOUR government should be backing the struggles of working people for decent pay. Instead, Blair has attacked workers who have stood up for their rights as "wreckers". It is no wonder that the leadership of the TGWU accused Tony Blair of being "more Thatcherite than Thatcher", when Blair decided to privatise the defence yards, putting thousands of jobs in jeopardy. He has stolen the Tories' clothes and has taken the Labour Party far to the right.
This Tory track record clearly shows that trade unionists need to take the struggle into the Labour Party to cleanse it of these pro-business infiltrators. Now is not the time to turn our back on the Labour Party or break the union link, as some have suggested. That merely plays into Blair's hands. The trade unions need to reclaim the Labour Party, which it founded and finances.
This must go hand in hand with a fight for working class socialist policies. No to the dog-eat-dog "market economy", driven by the profit motive, which puts millionaires first at the expense of working people. Privatisation has become a dirty word, where safety is subordinated to private gain. We should demand the renationalisation of all those industries privatised by the Tories (and Blair) with no compensation for the fat cats. But why stop there? We should fight for the nationalisation of the "commanding heights of the economy", the major monopolies, banks and insurance companies, under workers control and management. Then society can be democratically planned and run in the interests of working people and not a handful of super-rich parasites.
Socialist Appeal gives its unequivocal support to the firefighters in their struggle for the full claim. Their victory is our victory. At the same time we recognise that this will not be the end of the matter, but the first of many battles. These struggle must be taken into the Labour Party to transform it into a vehicle for fundamental change. Only the socialist transformation of society can solve the problems of the working class, and lay the basis for a future where poverty pay, unemployment and the ills of capitalism can be eradicated once and for all.
November 22, 2002
The Fight Goes On!
By Kris Lawrie
Firefighters and the public are becoming more and more angry with the way that the government is interfering to prevent this dispute being settled. As negotiations began on the day before the current dispute, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, made one simple statement: "there is no more money available." end of story!
The government refuses to enter into meaningful negotiation, but simply black balls any attempt to make progress. The FBU and even the employers were prepared to discuss through the night trying to avert the strikes. A deal was eventually thrashed out at 6 o'clock in the morning whereby the firefighters would be given a rise of 16% in the next 12 months, in return modernisation would have to be negotiated by the employers and the union. The union's executive agreed this deal with the employers and agreed to call off the latest action. Then the government stepped in once again to prevent the dispute being settled.
Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott's office was kept posted of developments all through the night, but when they were told about the possibility of a deal, Prescott, on his own admission, refused to consider it before 9 o'clock. This is a clear provocation, since the strike was scheduled to begin at this time. Or are we to understand that Prescott was too lazy to get out of bed to try to avert the strike? The blame for this strike going ahead lies squarely at the door of the government, which everyone now realises is not interested in settling the dispute.
The government wants nothing less than the total reorganisation of the fire service; the FBU has never opposed modernisation that leads to an improvement in safety and the level of service. But the proposals of the Bain Commission would abolish the watch system - whereby the same group of workers always work together on the same shift each day - bring in flexible working practices, which will include the introduction of overtime, and a cut back of the number of staff on the night shift. This is the time when the greatest number of people die in household fires. All these things have nothing to do with modernisation, and everything to do with saving money. The new measures would be the end of the current system where very close-knit teams of workers have the trust to place their lives in each other's hands.
The Blair government has picked this fight, they have their own agenda for attacking public services which has little to do with firefighters pay. But they have picked on the wrong people. Despite all the efforts of the gutter press to pour lies and filth on the firefighters - the Sun coming out with headlines like 'Fire chiefs are Saddam stooges' - public support remains strong, in fact it has grown in the last week. A Guardian ICM poll showed that support for the firefighters' action has grown from 47% at the beginning of the dispute to 53% now. Blair et al who introduced the term ‘spin' into the English language have been consistently outspun by the FBU leadership and rank and file firefighters who have put their case consistently and honestly. This is not only because everyone respects the job that the firefighters do, but equally because all sections of workers are coming under the same attacks. The discontent that this has caused throughout society has finally reached the point where it has boiled over and resulted in action, the firefighters are waging a struggle for the whole movement.
The gutter press will be looking to blame any deaths during this eight-day strike on the firefighters. Despite their lies, public opinion will place the blame for any such incidents where it belongs at the door of the government.
The army won't cross picket lines. Their chief of staff dealt Blair and co a serious blow at a recent press conference, when he expressed his "extreme concern" at the effect on the morale of his troops and their availability to fight a war in Iraq. The police have followed suit. They voted nine to one to reject the government's proposed reform of their jobs recently. Now they too have made it clear that they will not cross firefighters' picket lines. So now Blair proposes that "ordinary citizens" should break the picket lines and take the engines! Ordinary citizens support the firefighters. What Blair is implying is recruiting scab labour to break the strike. Such a step, reminiscent of the 1926 General Strike, would have to be met with a concerted response by the entire labour movement. Ministers are even talking now about using Tory anti-union laws to ban the strike. This is an outrage. The TUC who have declared their support for the firefighters would have to respond to such an attack with decisive and united action on the part of the entire trade union movement. Such action would receive the overwhelming backing of workers everywhere.
The truth is the government is running scared. The firefighters are winning the battle for public opinion. Their mood remains solid and determined in pursuit of their claim. If the government does not back down and allow this dispute to be settled, then it can only escalate. The firefighters do not want to strike but nor will they back down and see the fire service wrecked. The question now being posed by firefighters around the country is if this eight days of action doesn't force the government to back down, then there will be another eight, and another, and eventually all out action.
The entire labour movement must now rally to the side of the firefighters. Go to the picketlines, move resolutions, take up collections. The fight must be taken into the Labour Party too. The Labour leaders are taking on the unions. The unions must take on the Labour leaders too, inside the party.
Victory to the firefighters! Pay firefighters a living wage! No cuts, no attacks on the fire service that put lives at risk!
November 22, 2002
Interview with a Firefighter
Interview by Rob Walsh
On the picket line at Ealing Fire Station, Bob Gregory, West Hampstead Fire Station FBU Branch Rep spoke to Rob Walsh
RW: How is it going?
BG: Well, there is an absolute determination here to see the dispute through to a successful conclusion. If anything the way we have been treated by the government has made us more determined to dig our heels in and win. Nearly all of us firefighters voted Labour; I don't know if that will happen next time!
When a firefighter finishes his or her training the pay is just over £18k per year, which increases to £21k after four years. Then you don't get your next increment for another 15 years. And there are no shift allowances, no pre-arranged overtime; you only get overtime if you are out on a call which goes over the end of your shift.
The Prison Officers have had bitter experiences after accepting an
"independent review" which linked pay with changes in working practices. I was at a meeting recently in South London where a Prison Officers' union rep warned firefighters: "don't go down that road or you will regret it; it is a trap!"
RW: What reaction have you had from ordinary people in the street?
BG: The support from the public has been spectacular. We have a fighting fund which will be used to relieve hardship if the dispute goes on a long time, and people have donated hundreds of pounds already. From what we've seen it's hard to imagine that any of the public at large don't support us.
Yet you open the papers and we're being hammered.
A few people have said that nurses and many other public sector workers are poorly paid and that a big settlement for us would open the floodgates. It is true that many workers get low wages - but that doesn't mean we have to accept it. I wish I could fight for nurses' pay (my wife is a nurse and they definitely deserve more), but this dispute is about firefighters.
The last thing we want is a settlement that leaves us in the position of having to strike again in a few years. The employers can't possibly imagine what it costs us emotionally to take action like this. When we attend emergencies we see the pain, fear and bewilderment on people's faces and it breaks our hearts every time.