British Firefighters' dispute: The Rebirth of Class struggle - (Socialist Appeal Editorial)

Industrial militancy in Britain is on the increase. It reflects a general mood in the workplace that enough is enough. The Blair government is not only confronting the first national firefighters' strike in 25 years, but is facing action on a number of other fronts. This has raised the spectre of another Winter of Discontent similar to the one faced by the Callaghan government in 1978/79.

Industrial militancy is on the increase. It reflects a general mood in the workplace that enough is enough. The Blair government is not only confronting the first national firefighters' strike in 25 years, but is facing action on a number of other fronts. This has raised the spectre of another Winter of Discontent similar to the one faced by the Callaghan government in 1978/79.

From day one, the government took a belligerent approach to the firefighters. Blair scandalously attacked the "Scargillite" FBU and accused it of being under the control of "politically-motivated" leaders, which was reminiscent of Wilson's attack on the seamen's strike in 1966, led ironically by John - poacher-turned-gamekeeper - Prescott. There have even been noises about undermining basic democratic rights by banning strikes in essential services.

The government then called upon its crisis committee, Cobra, to deal with the planned walkouts by the firefighters. Shamefully, this LABOUR government even considered using the army to cross picket lines and seize fire-fighting equipment from fire stations. Despite the sop of an "independent" inquiry, Brown announced that there was no money for "inflationary pay settlements" or "quick fixes". "He [Blair] is now preparing for a hard, rocky, even alarming winter", wrote rightwinger John Lloyd in the London Evening Standard.

But the government has taken fright. They fear the firefighters' action will escalate, resulting in the closure of tube and mainline stations and other workers staging walkouts over safety cover. Already London Underground (LU) has announced the shutting of 19 stations on safety grounds. But LU management hopes to run the rest of the network despite the dangers. Rail union leaders are correctly arguing that thousands of staff stop or not report for work if safety is put at risk.

This issue itself is a powder keg as rail bosses threaten to dock pay from absent workers. These tin pot employers - who will be well away from any danger - have even threatened disciplinary action against workers if they fail to turn up to work. This could bring rail unions into direct confrontation with their bosses.

Other sectors could be involved such as nuclear power plants, factories and refineries and even petrol deliveries could be affected. This could lead to shortages and even power cuts. Other unions, including Unison, the TGWU, GMB and Amicus - representing 4.5 million workers - could advise members not to work.

With the government relying upon the old Green Goddesses [outdated army fire engines] manned by inexperienced soldiers and with no cutting equipment or breathing apparatus, it is a disaster waiting to happen. Shaken by the stand of the firefighters and the danger of the dispute spreading, the government has stepped in to open negotiations with the FBU. However, bringing forward the Bain Commission and talking of a 16% rise over three years with strings, is an insult. In practice it amounts to not much more than the original offer of 4% that was overwhelmingly rejected and which led to strike action in the first place.

The full claim - a wage of £30,000 to risk their lives - is a just claim. While firefighters understandably do not wish to take strike action, they have been completely ignored. It was only the threat of militant action that has made the government sit up and listen.

It is therefore the duty of all trade unionists to rally around the firefighters. The TUC has correctly come out in support of the FBU. Their dispute represents a beacon to all those low paid public service workers ready to fight for better wages and conditions. A victory for the firefighters, will be a victory for all those fighting to abolish poverty pay. That is why there exists a high level of public support for these frontline workers.

This firefighters' dispute - whatever the eventual outcome - represents the opening shot in a new stormy period facing Britain. It represents 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 suffered 18 years under the Tories. The Blair government has attempted to continue where the Tories 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 British ruling class is alarmed at the situation that is opening up in front of them. Unless a deal with the FBU can be hammered out soon, they fear an all-out confrontation that will spill over to wider layers of workers. This could even reach semi-general strike proportions. Despite their kept press weeping crocodile tears over "our brave firefighters", they are quite prepared to wage a scurrilous campaign of slander against the strikers when it suits them.

For now the government, fearing an escalation of the dispute, have entered negotiations. But 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. If they do give a substantial amount this will give inspiration to millions of low-paid workers. Behind the scenes, they are attempting to offer all kinds of partial concessions with strings attached. But the firefighters are determined to stick it out for the full claim. Before any agreement is finalised, the rank and file must be fully consulted through a recalled conference and ballot.

This dispute also clearly shows that we need to take this struggle into the Labour Party itself in order to cleanse it of all the Tory infiltrators. Socialist Appeal gives its unequivocal support to the firefighters in their struggle for the full claim. Their victory is our victory. In the words of the great Irish trade union leader James Larkin, "The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!"