Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/278/24468
Firefighters - A Decisive Struggle
NOT SINCE the miners' strike has there been such an important struggle as the national firefighters' strike for decent pay.
For many workers, especially in the public sector, the firefighters' struggle is also their struggle. A key group of workers has had the confidence and audacity to stand up to New Labour and demand they get the wage rise that they deserve. A victory for the firefighters would give confidence to all workers fighting against low pay.
For Blair, New Labour and the capitalist class which they represent, this is also a defining battle. Blair wants to prove to his big business backers that he can take on the unions and win. He wants to send a message to other public sector workers via the firefighters; accept low pay and 'modernisation' ie privatisation and attacks on wages and conditions - strike action cannot win.
The first two days of the strike tested the mettle of both sides. The firefighters stood firm and won huge public support. One government source said that "it's now a case of who blinks first" (Financial Times 17 November).
The FBU leaders hinted that they would lower their pay claim from 40% to 16% as a basis for negotiations. This could be seen by the government and the employers as a sign of weakness.
Prescott, who is in charge of negotiations, has raised the possibility of firefighters being made an 'exceptional case', but only if any settlement is funded by 'modernisation'. Blair has made similar statements while other government spokespeople have taken a harder line.
Blair and Prescott's comments reflect their shock at the level of support for the firefighters and the strength and cohesion of their struggle.
However, as with the rest of the public sector, 'modernisation' means cuts and attacks on jobs, wages and conditions. Most of the proposals in the Bain report would, if implemented, completely undermine the working conditions of firefighters that the FBU has fought for years to maintain.
If negotiations do not lead to an agreement, New Labour could once again raise the stakes as they did previously when they threatened to use the army to cross picket lines and 'commandeer' the red fire engines if the next planned eight days of strike action went ahead.
Army chiefs have made it clear that they do not want troops to be used in that way. As one defence source put it: "Huge political stakes are involved... the soldiers have not crossed picket lines since the  general strike".
The seizing of engines at this stage would be more symbolic than of practical use in breaking the strike. The soldiers would take weeks if not months to be brought up to speed. New Labour's real intention would be to show the firefighters that they mean business and are determined to win. Firefighters therefore need to show the same determination in resisting any attempt to seize the red engines, with solidarity support from other workers and the local community.
Commandeering fire engines could mean a 'lock out' of the firefighters. Then it would not be a case of having an eight-day strike and then back to work to see what the response is from the government. The battle would have moved on to a higher plane.
And under those circumstances the response of the whole trade union movement would need to move into a much higher gear.
Inherent in the whole situation is the need for much wider solidarity action. Many Tube workers refused to work without fire cover in the first two days of the strike, which brought a large part of the underground system in London to a halt. Bob Crow, leader of the RMT, has called for a ballot amongst his members over safety to bring the whole of the Tube out on strike.
However, under the present anti-union laws, this cannot be done by the time of the next planned strike. Tube workers should be prepared to refuse to work from the beginning of the next firefighters' strike, which they can legally do under current health and safety laws.
Nuclear power station workers, chemical workers, petroleum depot workers and other transport workers are also in the same situation, where it is dangerous to work if there is no fire cover. This applies to many other workplaces as well. The army green goddess can only reach up to the second floor of modern office blocks.
Workers are already calling on their employers to do risk assessments at their place of work. And if there is shown to be a risk to health and safety they can refuse to work.
If the government goes on to the offensive again the situation will demand decisive action. The basic democratic right to strike could be at stake. Under these circumstances trade unionists should demand of their leaders that general strike action be organised in defence of the firefighters.
If the TUC will not act immediately, then the left leaders of the RMT, ASLEF, CWU, PCS as well as the FBU itself should make a call for trade unionists to come to the aid of the firefighters.
The government has also threatened to seek a court injunction to ban the next strike. If this happens, the whole trade union movement should be mobilised to support the firefighters.
This is a decisive struggle for firefighters and all workers. With solidarity support the firefighters can win.
In The Socialist 22 November 2002:
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