British Firefighters' dispute: "There is no alternative"

Interview with Mick Shaw member of the FBU EC for the London Region: "We have now reached the stage where the government and the employers are hiding behind this so-called 'independent inquiry', and are refusing to engage in negotiations. Our members see no alternative but to take industrial action in order to persuade the employers to return to negotiations."

Socialist Appeal: How have wages and conditions and the actual job you do changed since the victory of the last national dispute in 1977?

Mick Shaw: The job has changed enormously, the range of incidents we deal with are far more complex, the equipment that we carry and use is far more advanced than it used to be. The whole emphasis of the job has now moved to prevention; rather than simply dealing with fires and other emergencies as they happen. So the range of skills required by a firefighter has changed, and has become far more advanced and technical in nature.

SA: How big a part have these changes played in the current dispute?

MS: These changes have played a large part in the current dispute. The office of national statistics no longer categorises firefighters as manual workers, but as associate professional and technical, and I think our members feel that our pay and conditions have not changed to take account of the different categorisation of our skills.

SA: How do you respond to the accusations of the government and the rightwing press that the FBU is endangering safety by going on strike?

MS: There are two sides to every dispute; we feel that we have shown an entirely responsible attitude in our actions during this dispute. We registered our claim with the employers on May 28, hoping to have the matter resolved by the beginning of November when our pay rise was due. We have been available during that time for negotiations, and in fact negotiations did take place throughout the months of June and July. But it was when the government appeared to intervene to block the employers' offer of 16% that these negotiations broke down. So we do not feel that we have been irresponsible or impatient in any way. We have now reached the stage where the government and the employers are hiding behind this so-called 'independent inquiry', and are refusing to engage in negotiations. Our members see no alternative but to take industrial action in order to persuade the employers to return to negotiations.

SA: What methods will the government employ to try to weaken or break the strike and what will be the response of the FBU leadership?

MS: Well they will obviously be using the army to provide a substitute fire service as they did 25 years ago, and we fully expect them to do that. We would far prefer that the energy and expenditure involved be used to try and resolve our dispute. It would be very problematic for them I think were they to attempt to use our fire engines and equipment. Firstly they are not trained to do so, secondly they are not insured, thirdly our members would have a point of view about using that equipment after it had been used by the army to break our strike. With regards to possible bans on industrial action in the emergency services, I hope they don't attempt to go down that road. I think there would only be one response our members could give to that and that would be to ignore any such ban. Because without the ability to take strike action we have no bargaining power at all, and we would have to accept low pay forever more.

SA: What support have you had from the rest of the trade union movement?

MS: The TUC unanimously passed a motion supporting us which makes a pleasant change from the situation 25 years ago when the TUC refused to support our strike on low pay. At grassroots level we have been positively encouraged by the support of trade unionists, from those who wish to make financial contributions to hardship funds, to those trade unionists who are looking seriously at the issue of whether they can continue to work safely in the event of our going on strike. We have a great deal of moral support from trade unionists, and from the rest of the public as well. Public support does appear to be overwhelmingly on our side.

SA: Do you think the government is opposing the pay rise for political or economic reasons?

MS: We believe it is not true to say they cannot afford it, they clearly can. We had a study done for us by a leading firm of accountants that showed that the cost of resolving the dispute was a matter of 40 pence per week per household, we think that that is definitely affordable. The government doesn't seem to think that a 40% increase on ministers' salaries last year was unaffordable, and it is clearly the case that our claim is not either. I think they are motivated by the determination to try and ensure that there is no explosion from low paid workers in the public sector who would be encouraged were we to be successful in our claim. In my opinion that is their motivation for intervening in the dispute, and for trying to make sure that the employers don't make us a substantial offer.

SA: Given that the unions are being forced more and more into conflict with the Labour government, how do you respond to people who say that the unions should break their links with Labour?

MS: I think it would be a big mistake to walk away from the Labour Party. Firstly there are many individual members and members of parliament in the Labour Party who are very supportive of trade unionists, and cases such as ours. I think that our task should be to remain in the party to retain a political voice, and to ensure that trade unions have a proper independent political strategy putting forward policies that support working people.