Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/13061
The 30 November strike and the Fire Brigades Union
Firefighters on last year's picket against scabs employed by AssetCo. Photo Suzanne Beishon
On 18 October, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) issued a statement explaining why it is not balloting for strike action on 30 November. The Socialist Party produced its own statement, which we publish below.
The difficult situation which the FBU faces flows from the mistaken decision of the Trades Union Council (TUC) leadership to accept separate pension scheme specific negotiations.
This was correctly opposed by the FBU, along with the PCS civil service union and other trade unions.
Nonetheless, our statement outlines our reasons for believing that while we understand the real problems faced by the FBU we still think that they should ballot.
After sending a draft of our statement to some members of the union, we have engaged in some dialogue with them. Below this edited version of our original statement, we publish a reply we've received from Ian Leahair, FBU Executive Council Member for London. We welcome this discussion and hope it can continue.
Socialist Party statement
The strike to defend public sector pensions on 30 November (N30) represents the biggest and broadest coordinated industrial action since the 1926 general strike, 85 years ago.
In terms of the numbers of workers involved, up to three million, it is likely to exceed the initial days of that great strike.
But that was in the context of a period of far greater militancy and workers' radicalism. The strike on N30, coming, as it does, after decades of relative industrial 'quiet' - in reality a bosses counter-revolution in both private and public sectors - can transform the consciousness of millions of workers within the unions on strike and the anti-cuts movement generally.
The huge potential power of the working class will be demonstrated for the first time in decades.
Crucially this power will also be displayed to the working class itself, including those who currently stand outside of the unions, but are being crushed by the Con-Dems' vicious cuts programme and the economic crisis.
Therefore it is essential that, as with the 30 June coordinated strike, the impact of the N30 strike is publicly displayed in mass demonstrations in cities around the country.
This also provides an opportunity for those not on strike, such as the unemployed, students, pensioners etc, to publicly show their support for this action, the next big step in the 'fight of our lives'.
Of course, the meaning of these events will also be imprinted in the collective minds of the bosses and their political representatives, particularly the Con-Dem government.
Therefore, any judgement about what the political and industrial world will look like after the strike day has to be carefully weighed up.
Similarly, the precise way in which the strike is followed up has to be estimated and tactics and strategy tested by the changing mood and consciousness.
The Socialist Party calls for an escalation of the action after N30, in the main by continuing to coordinate this on a national basis.
This could mean calling a 48-hour strike as the next action or possibly another 24-hour strike. This doesn't preclude some of the tactics advanced by some of the unions, namely sectional or regional action, provided this is a supplement to nationally coordinated strikes, not a replacement for them.
A campaign should be launched to reach out to workers in the private sector to encourage them to coordinate any current disputes.
What is primary is to combat any attempt by the more conservative union leaders to see N30 as the end of the campaign rather than the beginning and look to dissipate the mood of members.
In fact, the orientation of the left unions such as PCS has been to seek to act as a lever on the big unions such as Unison and the GMB alongside activists in these unions, and rank and file organisations such as the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN).
The result has been that the leaders of these unions have joined the campaign and are balloting their members.
The FBU firefighters' union is a union with a left leadership and a militant record in recent years, which works closely with the other left unions.
Because it has decided not to ballot for strike action on N30, it will raise concerns amongst many trade unionists. The union has issued a statement explaining the reasons for this.
Unlike the Local Government, NHS, Civil Service and Teachers' schemes, the government has agreed to negotiate the Fire Service 'cost ceiling' with the FBU.
The cost ceiling sets the level of funding required for each scheme. The government have also agreed to extend consultation with the FBU on contribution rates to 2 December, two days after the strike.
Clearly the union has to be seen by its members to base its decisions on the actual state of play with the talks.
Undoubtedly, the FBU has won a potentially significant concession on the cost ceiling, although it remains unclear whether the government are genuine about negotiations around already high contribution rates, pension age and future service under a new fire service scheme.
There is nothing wrong in principle in delaying action in some instances, even if already set, if there is an opportunity for further meaningful talks.
This shows the broad membership beyond the activists that the leadership is serious about negotiating an acceptable result.
However, the strike on N30 isn't a normal dispute but a multi-million strike of a united front of unions against the deep, wide and long-term attacks of the government, representing all employers.
We believe that the FBU could be underestimating the force and the effect of a strike on this mass scale.
There is a momentum building towards N30 across the public sector and an understandable desire for the maximum unity.
While the FBU's statement signals the union's support for the N30 strike and the intention of the union to take action if the talks come to nothing, there is the possibility that not to line up with the others on N30 would make it more difficult for the FBU to negotiate the best possible settlement.
Also, these considerations are not the only basis for a ballot. We welcome the decision of the London FBU to ballot for action on other issues.
The FBU, nationally, alongside five other unions, is taking legal action against the government's imposition of pension increases in retirement being based on the (lower rate) Consumer Price Index (CPI) definition of inflation rather than the (higher rate) Retail Price Index (RPI).
In Scotland, Unison in local government is actually balloting on this issue because the Scottish government and councils delayed talks on public sector pensions until 2012 at the earliest.
After carefully weighing up what is on the table and the interests of the union and the wider movement at this critical time, we believe that the national leadership should reconsider their decision and reconvene the union's Executive Council and recommend that they start a ballot.
This can only strengthen the FBU's bargaining position at this critical stage in talks with the government.
In spite of this, activists in other unions, particularly those with right wing leaderships, should act to prevent any attempt to use the FBU's decision as a cover to justify calling off or delaying their action. The left unions should continue to work closely with the FBU in defence of pensions.
Reply from Ian Leahair, FBU Executive Council Member for London
FBU executive council member Ian Leahair, photo Suzanne Beishon
You are correct that the FBU has issued a statement explaining why we are not balloting members for strike action on 30 November, however, you state that "we understand the real difficulties faced by the FBU". If this was true, then the statement would not attempt to undermine the decision of the FBU Executive who came to their decision based on their members interests.
Whilst other unions are not in meaningful negotiations, the same cannot be said for the FBU at this time, as you rightly state the FBU convinced the government to delay setting a cost ceiling for the firefighters pension schemes, a demand that other unions chose not to support.
It is somewhat surprising that your statement states "There is nothing wrong in principle in delaying action in some instances, even if already set, if there is an opportunity for further meaningful talks. This shows the broad membership beyond the activists that the leadership is serious about negotiating an acceptable result" and yet you condemn the FBU for doing exactly that?
If other unions were in meaningful talks would they ignore their members interests and continue to ballot? I think not.
It is true that the government could well continue to embark upon their current course and ignore the representations of the FBU in its scheme specific talks, but they do so knowing that the FBU would not simply accept such a course.
Strike action has always been as a last resort for the Fire Brigades Union, and we would be failing not only our members, but the communities we serve if we were to embark upon strike action before reaching that last resort.
Whilst we do not underestimate the force and the effect of strike action on such a mass scale on N30, you would do well not to underestimate the FBU's resolve to ensure that we defend our members' pensions using all options available to us, including strike action if necessary.
Across the UK, members and officials of the Fire Brigade Union will be supporting the N30 strike, in any way they can.