Almost a year after firefighters tabled their claim for a pay rise to £30,000 a year, new strikes are being prepared because of the intransigence of the employers and a Labour government hellbent on attacking public services. A meeting in Brighton of 250 delegates from all 58 brigades on April 15 voted overwhelmingly to turn down a package which the union's executive had originally recommended back in March. So much by the way for the media claim that the firefighters were being led by the nose by the union's leaders. In reality the leadership is being pushed in a more militant direction by the mood of ordinary firefighters.
The deal on the table amounted to nothing new, just the same old offer of 16% over three years paid for by the cost-cutting, service-wrecking Bain proposals. These shameful proposals have now been rejected time and again by firefighters.
The union had taken a decision to halt strike action while the war in Iraq continued. Fearing further inevitable attacks in the media, the delay in taking more action has dangers too. In any case that war is now over, and the continued deployment of large numbers of British troops in occupying Iraq must not be used as an excuse to delay action any further.
Prescott's threat to impose a settlement is still on the table. That threat, tantamount to an attempt to ban strikes in the fire service by the backdoor, must be dealt with. The firefighters continue to enjoy massive public support, but there is clearly a danger of confusion being sown in the ranks not just of workers generally but even of the firefighters themselves by long delays, and now by talk of compromise on the basis of Burchill's proposals. Under a proposal tabled last month by Frank Burchill, independent chairman of the fire service's negotiating machinery, and since adopted by the FBU executive, wages would still go up 16% in three phases (against the FBU claim for a one-off 40% rise), but unlike Bain's proposals, this deal would require agreement before shifts or crewing levels were changed. The threat to make such cuts remains however. After a lengthy delay, and with no clear way forward on offer, many firefighters see this as a potential starting point for reaching an all-round acceptable compromise.
The two-to-one vote in favour of this proposal from the Executive, representing 31,859 firefighters in favour and 15,829 against, underlined the danger of confusion after seven months of conflict. Greater Manchester delegate Alan Anderson said before the special conference: "My general feeling is one of despondency. I just feel that we are coming to the end of the road and I do not think it is a very satisfactory conclusion."
At the same time the mood of a large number of firefighters is now for calling all out action. A clearly worked out timetable for strike action and appeals to other workers in transport, power etc, for solidarity action would soon bring the employers to the negotiating table. It could also place the just claim for £30K back on the agenda.
The FBU leaders need to rally the membership with a plan to take their struggle forward. That can include proposals for negotiations, but must be based on renewed strike action.
Despite the earlier unequivocal support declared by the TUC general council for the firefighters they have done almost nothing in practice. Once again they see their role as referees in the dispute trying to convince both sides to reach a compromise. According to The Guardian, "Mr Gilchrist is expected to seek a further meeting with Mr Prescott and the employers, with the TUC general secretary-elect, Brendan Barber, again helping seek middle ground.
'We will be pursuing the Burchill proposals in the hope of discussing them and turning them into a revised offer,' a union source said."
Marxists are not opposed to negotiations, and maybe the Burchill proposals could be "turned into a revised offer" (although 16% over three years falls unacceptably short of the original claim of £30,000 a year). However negotiations should be conducted from a position of strength. The only thing that can force the employers and above all the Blair government to negotiate seriously - i.e. to make the compromises they are always demanding of the firefighters - will be militant action.
For the full £30k!
No to cost cutting, no job losses, no attacks on hours and conditions!
For all out action!