Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/278/24471
Firefighters Strike "Nothing will ever be the same"
AN OFFICER at Lambeth station in south London summed up the strike's importance as he walked out on 13 November:
"This step we've taken is very significant. Nothing will ever be the same again in the fire service, it will never go back to what it was an hour ago. This is like the miners' strike, the government taking on workers with everyone else behind them.
"This is about the whole of the public sector. It could be a long and bitter struggle. We want to stay united, officers and firefighters, throughout."
Danny West, the Leytonstone fire station FBU rep agreed: "They're spoiling for a fight. They've took us down the garden path, getting past 5 November, now they hope we'll be under pressure because it's near Christmas.
"But we're standing out here to win. We're not here to mess around and call it off. We're not putting lives at risk. I've been in this job for nearly 20 years and the last ten years we've been fighting to keep fire engines. 20% of London firefighters have been cut and because of that the death rate in London has gone up. So don't start talking to us about people dying. The only thing they're worried about is money."
Neil MacPherson, FBU Secretary for Mid and West Wales spoke to Alec Thraves after the FBU rally in Newport on 15 November: "Personally, if they [the army] try and cross our picket lines, even if our Executive decides not to stop them, I would like to see hundreds of trade unionists from Swansea coming down to the picket lines as a show of solidarity.
"If the employers and government refuse to negotiate an acceptable pay award and try to up the ante then the TUC should put its money where its mouth is and mobilise the trade union movement to defend the FBU because if we win then all trade unions will be strengthened".
From the picket lines
NOEL PINE reports that firefighters addressed Tameside UNISON and the branch agreed to donate £150 per month till the dispute ends.
"We urged collections and visits to the picket lines. We are urging a voluntary levy of £2, or more if members can afford it, across our 5,000 members.
Prince Charles visited Tameside during the strike. Incredibly the council attempted to turn off the fire alarm in the main council building, so as to avoid any embarrassment!
In the end they put people next to the alarms to dissuade hoaxers.
A local butcher displayed a head of a pig with Camilla on it. The monarchy clearly are in some disrepute."
Firefighters at Calvert Lane fire station in Hull pointed out their specialist equipment for use in combating terrorist attacks. For a chemical attack their equipment was four sponges, 50ml of disinfectant, 10 dust masks and 20 plastic bags, with ties.
Jim Malone, Dundee FBU branch secretary explained that firefighters were determined that their campaign for decent pay would benefit all public sector workers. On the safety issues he told us that "it has been the firefighters themselves that have had to fight to ensure they had the best equipment and training over the years. It is sheer hypocrisy for politicians to now be showing concern on that point.
"Every proposed modernisation carried out in the fire service has come from the FBU themselves not the employers or government.
"The Bain report is a preparation for privatisation. No way is it independent. The Labour Research report, which was independent, came up with the £30,000 figure."
Professor Roger Seifert of Keele University agrees about the Bain report. "It is not about the future of the Service in terms of modernisation but about stopping the strike".
Sending in the troops - lessons from 1977
DURING THE last national firefighters' strike in 1977, 20,750 military personnel were used, seven percent of the total trained strength of the armed forces.
But as The Times pointed out at the time, public safety wasn't the first priority: "At stake in the dispute, apart from the dangers to life and limb, is the future of the government's pay policy, and thereby its political credibility."
The political importance of the strike and the fears of a firefighters' wage rise setting a precedent for other workers, meant a massive mobilisation of military forces.
Not only nearly 1,000 green goddesses but 4,200 sailors, 1,350 Royal Marines, 10,000 soldiers and 5,200 from the RAF. Prisoners from the military jail in Colchester were even let out for firefighting duties. There were also 33 military firefighting teams with breathing apparatus and foam.
By the end of the strike, the military had streamlined its basic firefighting training course to four hours.
Steve Peak in his book Troops in Strikes makes an important point: "A key factor in [FBU members'] decision to resume work was undoubtedly the relentless build-up of the military firefighting capability through the strike."
In spite of this huge mobilisation of forces, losses through fire during the strike were 'roughly double' what might have normally been expected, according to the Chief Inspector of Fire Services annual report.
Summing up the real reasons for sending the troops in, Steve Peak quotes some FBU members from Bethnal Green fire station in east London, who he interviewed in 1982: "Bringing the troops in was just a publicity exercise, an enormous con-trick on the public just to reassure the patient that he wasn't dying. The green goddesses were useless... There was no fire cover, it was purely cosmetic. It prolonged the strike. It would have been cheaper to give us the money but Callaghan was determined to break the strike."
- Troops in Strikes, Military Intervention in Industrial Disputes, by Steve Peak, published by the Cobden Trust.
Terrifying the neighbourhood
"JUST PAY them the money" were the words on everyone's lips as we watched badly trained troops attempt to put out a fire in my tower block.
Steve Nally, Lambeth
The teenage soldiers were clueless and were running round like headless chickens looking for the source of the fire. Tenants tried to direct them towards the bin chutes where the fire was but the officers refused to take our advice.
At one point they attempted to evacuate the 17-storey block, a pretty difficult job if you don't have a megaphone. The icing on the cake was when they announced that they weren't trained to rescue people even though they were putting them in danger by their incompetence.
Fires like this are commonplace on my council estate but what takes firefighters minutes to handle took troops over 30 minutes to deal with. And firefighters don't terrify the whole neighbourhood in the process.
I spoke to some of the soldiers and they admitted that they were out of their depth and one even said that the government should stump up the money.
SOCIALIST PARTY members visited over 100 firefighters' picket lines during the first strike. They have built important links between the trade unions on a local basis, for the developments in the firefighters' battle and in preparation for future struggles.
We can only carry a small sample of the reports we have received for The Socialist in this week's issue but we urge our readers to continue sending in material.
Mick Cotter moved a resolution supporting the firefighters at a recent meeting of the Amicus-MSF London Regional Council. It was carried and donations of £737 were made to the FBU strike fund.
Public support for the firefighters' strike is growing. In a Guardian/ICM poll taken over 15-17 November, 53% said the firefighters' strike action is justified. Three weeks before it was 47%.
The FBU strike and the London Underground
THE FIRST FBU strike spread to London Underground (LU) as tube drivers in RMT and Aslef refused to take trains out without fire cover. One of LU's busiest routes, the Piccadilly line, was suspended throughout central London and major disruption occurred on most other lines.
Bill Johnson, RMT
The fire brigade respond to all manner of emergencies on the tube, from rescuing people from accidents to evacuating trains broken down in tunnels. But the biggest concern of tube workers on FBU strike days is that if there's a fire in a tunnel there will be no-one able to rescue passengers or staff.
The green goddesses carry no breathing apparatus and troops have no experience of working in the underground's unique conditions. They would be helpless in the face of a major incident.
The government have accused tube workers of taking unjustified secondary action. Blair claims RMT and Aslef members are politically motivated. In fact it is Underground management who have taken the unjustified decision to keep the tube open at all costs in order to help their New Labour political masters to fight the FBU.
The refusal to work normally on the tube is motivated by real fears over the lack of fire cover in a dangerous environment. Of course any help this offers to the FBU and their strike will also be welcomed by RMT and Aslef members who like other workers see £30K as a completely justified pay claim.
Management are now threatening the possibility of disciplinary action against staff who refuse to work normally if the FBU goes ahead with action on 22 November. RMT members are considering the next move but this must include spreading action more widely across stations where other LU workers are just as much at risk as train drivers.
Who really defends public safety?
THIRTY ONE people died in the fire at Kings Cross station in November 1987, including one firefighter. A fire broke out under an escalator and quickly spread through the tube station's ancient building materials.
With inadequate means of escape, people were sent to their deaths up escalators and through the ticket hall which quickly turned into an inferno.
Militant, The Socialist's predecessor explained some of the reasons for these tragic deaths. "London Underground wants an arrangement 'where fewer staff are employed but with greater flexibility'.
"At Kings Cross, staff had been cut from 16 to ten and full-time cleaners from 14 to two."
Escalator maintenance staff had been cut throughout the system.
This was in spite of a fire at Oxford Circus station three years previously, after which many improvements were recommended.
Militant quoted a senior London Underground official who told the press: "If we had unlimited funds we would have done a major renovation on fire safety. But we were stretched for cash and we did the best we could with what we had."
At the same time the London Fire Brigade management was trying to introduce plans to cut 800 jobs.
A firefighter wrote in The Militant: "The history of the fire service has shown that like any other group of workers, firefighters have had to get organised and fight to improve and defend conditions."
And the day before the Kings Cross fire, rail workers were leafleting passengers at Kings Cross, explaining the dangers of the plans to run driver-only trains on an underground stretch of British Rail track between Drayton Park and Moorgate.
The workers were threatened with the sack.
What's behind the Bain report?
IN NORTHERN Ireland 96.7% of FBU members voted for strike action. The first two-day strike was completely solid and the non stop hooting of car horns at the picket lines showed massive public support.
Ian Beard, FBU rep Whitla Street station, Belfast
When FBU leader Andy Gilchrist spoke in Belfast's Transport House there was an electric mood among the more than 500 firefighters who crammed into the hall to hear him.
Firefighters are angry that having made the case for a professional wage for a professional job, Tony Blair has counter attacked with an attempt to erode conditions and introduce so-called 'reforms' that would lead to a worse service.
We are not opposed to change and real reform that would lead to an improved service. But Bain is about smashing the power of the FBU, not giving the public better fire protection.
He wants flexible shifts so that there is less solidarity among our members. He wants mixed full-time and retained crews, even though this could mean slower responses as we wait for part-timers to arrive.
He wants to bring in outside managers from the private sector, people who are good at attacking workers' rights but, like George Bain, know nothing about firefighting. While talking about the number of people applying to be firefighters he wants us to work overtime, even to work as retained firefighters in our time off, all of which would mean less jobs.
No firefighter wants to strike but we have been left with no option. We are fighting, not just for a decent wage but to protect the service from Bain and Blair's so-called reforms. It is the government who are threatening to escalate this dispute, asking the army to cross picket lines to take the red fire engines and even threatening to use the law to sack us for striking.
Blair wants to make an example of the FBU and then go on to hold down wages and attack conditions for other public sector workers. If we win, it will be a victory for every worker and could be the start of a struggle for decent wages and conditions for all.
Solidarity from UNISON
I PUT the following resolution to the national Policy, Development and Campaigns Committee of UNISON.
"This union states its full support to the FBU undertaking strike action in pursuit of their pay claim for a 40% pay increase. We urge all Branches to consider what steps they can take to assist the fire-fighters, in particular by showing support for demonstrations and similar events organised by the FBU and by raising funds to assist the dispute. We call upon the government to make adequate funding available to allow the fire-fighters to receive decent pay reflecting both their skills and the risks taken at work."
The resolution was carried unanimously. After the meeting I went to the picket line at Euston fire station, introduced myself and gave the pickets a copy.
Roger Bannister, UNISON national executive council
In The Socialist 22 November 2002:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
International socialist news