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From The Socialist newspaper, 12 May 2005

Left victory in firefighters' union

THE DECISIVE victory of Matt Wrack in the ballot for the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) represents a big step forward for the union and the trade union movement in general.

After a year of attacks on supporters of Matt and inquiries designed to undermine the general secretary result, Matt's margin of victory over incumbent general secretary Andy Gilchrist - by 12,883 votes (63.9%) to 7,259 (36.1%) - has stopped in its tracks any immediate attempt by the current union hierarchy to overturn the election result.

Matt immediately took the reins as general secretary at the conference. His election represents, along with Mark Serwotka's re-election as general secretary of PCS, a consolidation of the advances of the Left, at least for one section of the union movement.

Matt's election should see the FBU take a firmer stand on vital issues like pensions and pay than it has done in the last year, where the majority of the union leadership have preferred to attack and witch-hunt their own members, rather than preparing a fight on these issues.

During the build-up to the threat of co-ordinated strike action against the proposed cuts in public-sector pensions, the FBU was noticeably absent from the battlefield. This did not stop Andy Gilchrist and his coterie from claiming, as the general secretary election got underway, that they had played a significant role in forcing the government to back down.

As well as the threat to firefighters' pensions there are a number of pressing issues that Matt Wrack will have to deal with, arising from this week's conference.

An increasingly aggressive management are trying to impose change at a whole number of levels - including the issue of regional control centres and rationalisations arising from the Integrated Risk Management Plans (IRMP) - which pose a big threat to firefighters' working conditions. The control centre reorganisation threatens 900 jobs, mainly of women workers.

At the same time, the union conference this week was due to discuss the next step after its disaffiliation from the Labour Party at its conference last year.

A composite resolution - being moved by Socialist Party members from Northern Ireland FBU and seconded by London - was set to call for the union to allow its regional and brigade structures to support candidates and parties outside of Labour.

The union's executive council are opposing this democratisation of the union's political fund.

Socialist Party members will be verbally making the call for the FBU, along with other unions like the RMT railworkers' union, who are also disaffiliated from Labour, to host a conference where unions can begin taking the first clear steps towards offering trade union-backed candidates in elections as a step towards a new mass party of the working class.

All of these issues will require urgent attention from Matt Wrack as the newly elected general secretary. It is also possible that the old guard in the union will be waiting for an opportunity to launch a counter-offensive to try and make Matt a political hostage.

There will be an urgent need to build an open, genuinely democratic Left organisation at all levels of the FBU to consolidate Matt Wrack's election.

The Socialist Party welcomes his election and will wholeheartedly support any moves he makes that improve firefighters' conditions and strengthen the Left in the union. At the same time, the FBU membership need their confidence rebuilding after the setbacks of their dispute in 2003-2003 and the misrule of the Gilchrist years.

That means not just arguing for greater democracy in the union, which Matt and his supporters made the key plank of their election platform, but also outlining a clear strategy to stop the bosses' attacks and win victories for members on pensions, pay and conditions.

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In The Socialist 12 May 2005:

NHS - Stop the profit vultures

Defend public services

Everyone has a right to education

Join the G8 protest

1945 - Victory in Europe: When 'liberation' meant socialism

Blair battered but what's the alternative?

Rebuilding SSP support under a third Labour term

Discontent with the 'Blair project'

Polarisation widens in Northern Ireland

Coventry - the best campaign ever

Building a base in Lewisham

Big vote for socialism in Bolsover

Left victory in firefighters' union

Workers demand justice on pensions

Amicus conference: Size isn't everything

UNISON health conference: Fight low pay and privatisation, defend pensions


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