At the beginning of this month, as the first wave of strikes loomed the Blair government was preparing to square up to the firefighters. "Picket lines might be crossed…. no options are being ruled out" Blair triumphantly proclaimed. This was a blatant threat of attack. Such actions would have put the government on a collision course with the unions. It shows how removed from reality Blair is in arrogantly attempting to trample over the concerns of working people.
However they are in for a rude awakening. The discontent of the workers has been bubbling away and is now beginning to boil over - the Blairites can no longer get away with what they used to. Despite claiming that there was 'no money in the pot', and being one of their most vociferous critics, John Prescott called the FBU leadership in for negotiations at the end of October. That represents a climb-down by the government, who are worried by the support the firefighters are getting from the public and the trade unions, in spite of their campaign of press propaganda.
The firefighters’ dispute is more than just an isolated strike over pay. It represents a qualitative step forward in the industrial situation. The years of budget cuts, increasing workloads, deterioration of working conditions, and wage restraint, even throughout the period of a boom in the economy, has transferred enormous pressure onto workers. The bosses want to provide public services on the cheap, just as they want workers in industry to be more productive without new investment in plant. These accumulated tensions have led to an unstoppable shift to the left, which is still picking up momentum. Until now the Blairites have been pushing and pushing the unions. Now that they find themselves on the eve of their first big dispute they have been forced to take a step back to avoid an explosion.
The government is using many arguments to fudge the issue and attempt to make the firefighters look naïve or greedy. But the government can afford to pay all public servants higher wages! The real reason they want to break the dispute is because the Blairites worry that it will open the door to pay claims from low paid workers across the public sector. And that this will lead the unions to challenge more and more the openly pro big business agenda of the clique who have hijacked the Labour Party.
It is clear that the government will use the most unscrupulous methods to try to intimidate and pressurise the leaders of the union. They will try to outlaw the action, and might even use the army not only to cover the duties, but also to intimidate the workers on the picket lines. Any attack on the firefighters is an attack on all workers; the entire trade union movement must act decisively in solidarity with the firefighters. Every union branch must send messages of solidarity, donations to strike funds, and give active support to the action.
We must call on the TUC to build up the momentum, and create active broad-based labour movement support around the dispute. Safety must not be compromised at work; the unions should give full backing to any workers who refuse to work on strike days. The struggle of the firefighters is part of a struggle of the whole movement against attacks on pay, working conditions and living standards. The whole movement must be mobilised to resist attempts to break the strike, and secure victory to the firefighters.
October 31, 2002
Update: For the full 30K now!
by Kris Lawrie
As we go to press, the FBU leadership has entered negotiations with the government, and the first wave of strike action has been called off. The government has taken a step back. This is a critical point in the dispute; it is imperative that the union holds its ground, and steps up the pressure to have the demands met in full.
At a recent meeting called by the London Public Sector Alliance in support of the firefighters, Andy Gilchrist, the General Secretary of the FBU spoke about the firefighters' dispute. He pointed out that from the beginning the union has been willing to enter negotiations, but that these had broken down when the government blocked the employers' offer of a 16% increase and no new offer was on the table. "We are going on strike", he told the meeting, "and the government have got seven days to make us a serious offer."
Just days before the first strike was due to take place, the government invited the FBU leaders to negotiations. They obviously realised that if they had continued to provoke the firefighters, they were going to cause an explosion. As a result, the FBU leadership called off the first wave of strikes pending these negotiations. However, the firefighters are determined to achieve a decent wage. The wages and conditions of firefighters have declined since the historic victory of 1977. Since then the workload has increased by at least 80%, and funding and recruitment has not increased to keep pace with this.
The firefighters put their lives on the line every day. The level of work related injury claims from accidents and stress is one of the highest for any profession. A fully qualified firefighter with years of experience earns about £21,000, 11% of which is deducted immediately for pension contributions. The money is even worse for control room staff who receive only 92% of the wages of a normal firefighter; and part-time (retained) staff who are paid a scandalous £36.40 a week plus a much lower hourly rate than the regular firefighters for the hours that they work.
With house prices rocketing most public sector workers, especially in the South East, cannot afford to live near their job. There are disturbing stories about people sleeping on station floors, or travelling two hours to and from home. Many of these workers are forced to take extra jobs to get by, these are usually menial jobs; like driving mini cabs, painting and decorating, and window cleaning. So the firefighters certainly need the money, and their work justifies at least £30,000.
The press have been trying to whip up hysteria among the public with a campaign of lies. This has not been very successful, but they are clearly trying to build up for a showdown between the firefighters and the government, and it is obvious who they would side with. They have said: FBU activists have been intimidating 'honest' members into strike action; the union is undemocratic; the union is putting life at risk for its own political agenda; the firefighters are greedy! To this we reply that 90% of FBU members voted in a secret ballot for action, not because of intimidation by colleagues, but because of the intimidation and disdain shown towards then by the government. The FBU has no political agenda other than to further the interests of its members, who are quite the opposite of greedy. If anything, they are not greedy enough!
The employers and the government on the other hand are jeopardising public safety to keep public sector wages low. They have a political agenda in protecting the profits of big business, they are terrified that a victory for the FBU would encourage all public sector workers to demand decent wages and back the demands up with strike action if necessary.
The government is now taking cover behind the 'independent' Bain Commission, which is far from independent. The FBU has no input into the Commission. They might offer an increase, under the aegis of the hurriedly completed 'independent review', but they will certainly try to tie it to changes in working practices, which is something the firefighters will not accept. In any case, there is already a joint negotiating committee to decide on working practices. Why should these decisions be put into the hands of government-appointed 'independent experts' who know nothing about how the industry works?
It is difficult to see how the negotiations will find a 'balance' between the interests of the firefighters and the employers. The FBU are negotiating at the moment from a position of strength. The strikes have been postponed but the government negotiators will be aware they have the threat of action hanging over their heads. The union should play that to their advantage. If the employers are on the run they should push for the full 30K and not accept any strings; above all a deal should only be accepted on the basis of a ballot of the whole membership. At the end of the day if the government will not deliver through negotiation then they will have to listen to action.
The firefighters have enormous public support, and the full support of the trade union movement. They must step up the campaign to win the hearts and minds of all workers. The firefighters are fighting today, but they are leading the struggle for us all, the struggle for better wages and conditions, to rebuild the confidence and the power of organised labour and the trade union movement in Britain. A victory for them is a victory for all workers!