Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/281/24445
Firefighters Are Determined To Win
FIREFIGHTERS HAVE had mixed feelings about talks at ACAS. While many welcomed them, there is also scepticism about whether they will actually deliver
If the government doesn't agree to fund a significant pay deal, without strings that attack jobs, working conditions and the quality of our fire service, firefighters remain determined to resume strike action for as long as it takes.
20,000 firefighters, their families and other trade unionists attended the national demonstration in London on 7 December. This was a sizeable display of support for the firefighters. But, if the eight-day strike had not been cancelled, there is no doubt that the demo could have been much bigger, with hundreds of thousands of working-class people demonstrating their solidarity.
Discussions at ACAS have temporarily taken the momentum out of the struggle. However, support for the firefighters is still high. Workers understand that an attack on the firefighters is an attack on the whole working class.
Blair is preparing to fight to the death to defend his pro-big business agenda for the public services. In such a decisive battle, solidarity is the key to victory.
Workers have mainly shown their support by tooting horns, visiting picket lines and donating money, which has been extremely important in maintaining the morale and resolve of the firefighters to continue their struggle.
This could potentially be channelled into much wider support, including strike action, if a resolute lead were given by the trade union movement. Such action could ensure that this dispute is won.
The firefighters' determination to struggle needs to be matched by the trade union leaders. While keeping up the pressure we should have no illusions that the TUC, with its advocacy of 'partnership' between bosses and workers, will have any intention of delivering solidarity action - despite its verbal support.
Those leaders on the left therefore should be preparing now to organise a conference of stewards and union reps to discuss how support for the firefighters can be translated into action to win.
Firefighters demo, London, 7 December
FIREFIGHTERS' LEADER Andy Gilchrist was greeted with roars of support and a deafening chorus of klaxons and whistles when he spoke at the FBU rally on 7 December.
Over 20,000, mainly firefighters and their families travelled to central London from all over England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in an impressive show of strength and solidarity.
It was one of the biggest displays of trade union banners for several years. Marching past some of the clubs, hotels and restaurants of the rich, it exposed the hysteria of politicians and the press over the firefighters' claim for a living wage of £30,000.
Even TUC general secretary John Monks had to point out that the price of a meal in many of those establishments was more than a firefighters' weekly wage.
There was a serious mood at the rally. In spite of the cold, most stayed to hear Andy Gilchrist. "I never thought we would see a Labour government demonising firefighters in this way" he said. "The press and the government say the FBU should stay out of politics but we've every right to with 10,000 jobs at stake."
Every mention of the government was met with boos and every call for more action, however mild, was cheered enthusiastically. But the furthest Andy Gilchrist would go on more strike action was to announce: "If the government has the reckless audacity to wreck a deal at ACAS then we'll be back on strike."
Pete Cooper, from Leyton in east London voiced the suspicion that some firefighters have of the ACAS talks: "ACAS have always been appeasers. They seem to go on the side of the government of the time and appease the situation. They won't necessarily do the best things for the firefighters.
"I don't know what's happening behind closed doors but all I can say is our area in Waltham Forest has a motion going through calling for a ballot for 48-hour strikes, if the situation doesn't improve."
As Bill Spiers from the Scottish TUC launched into song and Hyde Park emptied, many firefighters were left worrying how many more strikes would be called off while the ACAS talks drag on.
FBU members have proved their determination to fight for a living wage. That momentum must not be lost while New Labour get a longer breathing space from ACAS.
"I'm pleased that the talks are still going" a firefighter from Belfast told The Socialist: "But I'm up for the strike and ready for the strike. I was never so glad when the strike was postponed - coming up to Christmas and all that. But at the end of the day we're up for it. We'll have to go all the way, to make sacrifices to get anywhere."
The Socialist demands:
- For the full £30K without strings
- No cuts through 'modernisation'.
- Build solidarity with the firefighters.
- A dispute to save the fire service
Steve Holloway, an FBU member from East London spoke to Linda Taaffe about how the dispute is going:
"I HOPE that these ACAS talks succeed. I think the union was right to go for talks now. Although I wholeheartedly agree that Labour is not real Labour - I have already got everyone at my station to stop the political levy.
"I think Andy Gilchrist's words have been highlighted by the mass media to divert this dispute from pay and conditions to a personality frenzy. Firefighters thought they were on strike for a reasonable wage but suddenly it has escalated into something more serious.
"It's a dispute to save the UK fire service. 40% makes a catchy sound bite for the tabloids but the real issue for us was always a living wage, £30K. The media have also tried to portray the action as greedy workers demanding outrageous pay. For us pay and protecting the fire service for the public go hand in hand.
"The government proposals about change are frightening. They represent such an attack we must oppose them. It would mean fewer firefighters working longer hours. The overtime ban protects firefighters' jobs, maintaining a greater level of service to the public.
"The same goes for joint working with retained firefighters. We would not be able to respond to fires so quickly. You only ever need a fire crew in an emergency, but when you make that call, you want them there in minutes. Full time crews would have to wait for a retained driver to respond to his pager and then to reach the station. This would be dangerous.
"16% would be an improvement on the present 4% but not if it is over three years.
"There are a lot of problems. When we get to know about the nuts and bolts - of the so called modernisations and not just the leaks in the media, I don't think the public or the FBU will be able to accept them."
FIFTY FIREFIGHTERS lobbied the full council meeting in Coventry last week to urge support for a motion being moved by the Socialist Party Group.
Councillor Rob Windsor
The motion called for support for the FBU claim for £8.50 per hour for firefighters and opposed any cuts in jobs or cover as outlined in the Bain report. Socialist councillor Dave Nellist was applauded from the public gallery after presenting a petition in support of the firefighters' campaign.
Later Socialist councillor Karen McKay moved the motion giving thorough details of firefighters' struggle to make ends meet on the current wage and on the real cost of cuts in the service. The firefighters in the gallery were on their feet listening to every word.
Karen attacked the hypocrisy of the likes of Digby Jones of the CBI, awarding themselves big pay rises to act as apologists for the super-rich whilst predicting immediate economic collapse if the firefighters won.
Labour opposed us but most were strangely quiet. The right-wing Labour councillor heading up Coventry council's contingent on the fire authority read from a bland prepared statement urging us to withdraw our motion in favour of leaving things to ACAS.
The Tory was more supportive of the union, stating that the government should not seek to impose its will by "Smashing the FBU!".
Only the Socialist Group supported the motion. The firefighters who stormed out in disgust after the meeting and their workmates will definitely be questioning support for a Labour Party which could not even raise itself even to moderately support their cause in a local council meeting.
On the 7 December demo
CHRIS NEWBY spoke to firefighters on the demonstration:
"THE INTERIM Bain report was a slap in the face for us. All you can see is cuts. He's doesn't understand how the fire service works. Half the things we are doing already and the other half we're not doing because it's totally unworkable.
"Unless the government are prepared to compromise it doesn't matter what ACAS says - it's like with the employers it doesn't matter what they say - we might as well deal straight with them.
"I'm a bit disappointed that the strike was called off. It's at a time when we need to keep the pressure up and we seem to have let go a little bit. The strike on 16 December is still on - if nothing happens [in the talks] then it can't be called off.
"I don't feel I can contribute to the Labour Party. We got them elected and now they're doing this to us."
Stefan Tanfield, Harlow, Essex
"WE WELCOMED ACAS but I don't hold out much hope. The government are prepared for a fight. If they want a fight they can have it.
"I think now the attitude to the Labour Party is changing. FBU members want to disaffiliate. I think a new party formed by the trade unions would be welcomed."
Alan Blacklee, Cleveland
In The Socialist 13 December 2002:
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