In a matter of days the entire political landscape of Britain has been transformed by the magnificent struggle of the firefighters. Their case is a simple one. They don't want the fire service undermined in the name of so-called 'modernisation' (Blairite newspeak for 'cuts') putting more lives at risk. They want a modern fire service with the resources to save and protect lives and they want to be paid a reasonable living wage. The justice of their case, and the respect which firefighters have earned from society for putting their lives on the line, goes a long way to explaining the enormous level of public support they enjoy. Despite the filth and lies spewed out by the media in recent weeks - The Sun claiming links between FBU leaders and Saddam Hussein, for example! - public support for the firefighters has grown, according to the Guardian/ ICM poll, from 47% at the start of the dispute to 53% at the beginning of the second strike. The latest poll by BBC London found 59% in support. Even these figures don't tell quite the same story as the non-stop hooting of horns at FBU picket lines, and the conversations in pubs and on public transport, which is now dominated by talk of the firefighters' struggle.
There is something more, too. After twenty years of constant attacks, privatisation, job cuts, wage freezes, speed-ups, and longer hours, finally someone is making a bold stand. We all feel the same. The firefighters struggle is our struggle - we've had enough, this far and no further! John Edmonds of the GMB is right when he says that "the government have turned this into a fight with the entire trade union movement."
The actions of Blair, Brown and Prescott only serve to stiffen the resolve. It is now clear to everyone that the government does not want to settle this dispute. They refuse to negotiate and block any move by the union and the local government employers to reach a deal. Negotiators for both sides talked through the night on the eve of the second strike to try to find a deal that could avert the action. At the last moment Prescott intervened to scupper the deal worth 16% over two years - not the full claim, but a big step forward - just as he had done months before. The blame for the strike having to go ahead lies squarely at the door of the government.
Their real agenda is the complete reorganisation of the fire service for the purposes of cost-cutting. Firefighters are in favour of modernisation which helps improve their service, but the Bain proposals, backed by Blair and co, to abolish the watch system, introduce 'flexible' working practices , cut back on night shift numbers and introduce overtime have nothing to do with modernisation or saving lives, and everything to do with saving money.
The Blair government has picked this fight, they have their own agenda for cutting and 'modernising' public services which has nothing to do with firefighters' pay. But they have picked on the wrong people. The determination of the firefighters to struggle for the pay they deserve and to protect the fire service is an inspiration to the entire trade union movement. They don't want to strike but they have been forced into it. The actions of the government have been one provocation after another. Blair's attempt to appeal over the head of the union to 'ordinary firefighters and their families' won't wash. The union is the ordinary firefighters. They voted for this action by nine to one. They have the full backing of their families and the vast majority of ordinary working people.
Just compare the arrogant approach of Labour ministers towards the unions with their snivelling and grovelling before the leaders of the bosses at the CBI, the very day after Blair's anti-FBU press conference. This is supposed to be a Labour government. It is supposed to represent the interests of ordinary working people, instead the Blairites in the leadership are faithfully representing the interests of the bosses.
The gutter press will try to blame any deaths during the strike on the firefighters. This will not wash either. Every day we hear how firefighters rush from the picket lines to try to protect lives, rescue people from burning buildings etc, and then return to the pickets. Despite the lies of the press, public opinion will place the blame for any deaths at the door of the government where it belongs.
Blair and co who introduced 'spin' to British politics are daily losing the PR battle, because of the honest and consistent way in which FBU leaders and rank-and-file firefighters put their case. This has struck a chord with workers everywhere, not just because they respect the job firefighters do, but also because all sections of workers are feeling the same pressures, the same attacks.
At the time of the last election, the TUC's John Monks reported overhearing some 'bright young things' at Millbank discussing with relish the prospect of taking on the unions. It is now quite clear that Blair and co have provoked this strike. Their intention is to give the union movement a lesson preparing the way for wholesale 'reform' of public services. They have seriously miscalculated. Their latest claim that to pay the firefighters a decent wage would wreck the economy doesn't hold water. In the words of Charlie Whelan, former advisor to Gordon Brown at the Treasury, "there was no talk of economic Armageddon when MPs voted themselves a 40% pay rise" (BBC Breakfast 27/11/02).
Not a word of condemnation do we hear from Blair and Brown about the fatcat directors paying themselves huge bonuses. Instead they claim that to give in to the firefighters would inspire other public sector workers to fight for decent pay. For once they are right. But they cannot stop that fight taking place now anyway. Already teachers, nurses, postal workers, airport workers and others are preparing to fight back against cuts or for better pay. The firefighters are not alone, they are the front rank of millions of workers for whom a line in the sand has been crossed. Enough is enough!
Blair claims that to pay the whole public sector an extra 16% would cost £16 billion. To us that sounds like a bargain, certainly better value for money than bombing Iraq on which this money will otherwise be spent.
The government have backed themselves into a corner. The firefighters are winning the battle for public support. Their mood remains solid and determined. Meanwhile the Blair government comes under fire from all quarters. The attack on government policy by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce must be unprecedented. In a press conference alongside defence minister Hoon, he expressed extreme concern at the fact that the armed forces were being stretched by their role in the dispute. They might not even be in a position to fight in Iraq. Admiral Boyce made it quite clear that the army would not be crossing picket lines. Hoon and co. immediately retreated arguing that the police and not troops would be used to cross picket lines. 'Oh no we won't' replied the police, themselves under threat of 'modernisation' in proposals they rejected by nine to one in a ballot last year. In desperation government sources claimed that 'ordinary citizens' would break picket lines to take red engines. Ordinary citizens overwhelmingly support the firefighters. What Blair is implying is the recruitment of a scab force, reminiscent of the 1926 General Strike. Such a step would have to be met with a concerted and united response by the whole movement.
To add to the sense of pantomime the real owners of many of the red engines have now demanded that no-one touch them because they would not be insured to do so. The real owners it turns out are in many cases, PFI companies. The Daily Mail and their friends like to talk about 'our red engines', without even realising that they have effectively been sold off.
There is even more desperate talk about using Tory anti-union legislation 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 on workers' fundamental rights with decisive and united action on the part of the entire trade union movement.
Already workers in power stations, chemical plants, on London Underground and elsewhere have correctly raised the danger to lives of working without cover from the fire service. Any workers attacked for refusing to work in these circumstances must be defended by the whole movement too.
Despite all their bluster, the government is running scared. If they do not back down then the struggle will escalate. The firefighters do not want to strike but they will not back down and see the fire service wrecked. The attitude of firefighters around the country is if these eight days don't force the government to back down then there will be another eight and another eight and eventually even all out action.
The entire labour movement must now rally to the side of the firefighters. Go to the picket lines! Move resolutions and take up collections! The fight must be taken into the Labour Party as well. The Labour leaders want a fight with the unions. The unions must give them a fight inside the Party too. Union leaders like Derek Simpson of AMICUS, Billy Hayes of the CWU and Mick Rix of ASLEF have all publicly called on their members to join the Labour Party and fight to reclaim it. We support that call one hundred percent. A section of workers are now questioning why they should be funding the Labour Party when it is attacking them. This is entirely understandable, but any move to weaken the link between the unions and Labour now would only play into Blair's hands. It is Blair who wants to break the link. The Blairites want to introduce state funding of political parties, to free themselves from the unions. They fear that the process of radicalisation and change taking place in the unions today will spread and be repeated in the Labour Party tomorrow. They are right. Exactly the same process will take place inside Labour, but it will not happen automatically. It must be organised and the unions must be at the forefront of that battle.
The firefighters can and must win their struggle. But to defeat Blairism trade unionists must fight the Labour leaders not only through industrial action, but also politically, where it counts, inside Labour.