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Firefighters urge union to face up to challenges
DELEGATES AT the annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) called on the union to face up to the challenge of a whole raft of assaults on Fire Service conditions and prepare for industrial action if necessary.
The conference agreed to take action on the threatened loss of 900 jobs with the introduction of regional control centres and also raised the prospect of striking alongside other unions to save the fire service and local government pension schemes.
The proposed moves towards regional control centres - down from 58 to nine in England and Wales and possibly down to one in Scotland, threaten the jobs of 900 workers, mainly women. The moves would also reduce standards and response times.
These proposals are the most high-profile of many proposed changes that the fire service employers and Labour government are making under the guise of 'modernisation'. Other debates, such as on crewing levels, saw one firefighter say: "We don't mind taking risks with our lives when it is to save other people's lives but we are not going to do it so the bosses can cut costs."
The union also committed itself to firmer action on other issues under the new general secretary Matt Wrack than had been apparent under the recently removed leader Andy Gilchrist.
On pensions, the union lagged behind other public-sector unions in readiness to take action to defend their pension scheme and did not ballot for action along with other unions in the run-up to the 23 March day of co-ordinated strike action.
However, the fact that the government had been forced into a temporary retreat definitely lifted the confidence of firefighters that something could be done. After the bruising experience they suffered at the hands of the government during their 2002-2003 pay dispute, firefighters have been hesitant about preparing for national action. At the same time, the old guard union leadership of Gilchrist and his acolytes were more intent on attempting to snuff out any opposition against them in the union, especially from those who criticised their mis-handling of the pay dispute.
New general secretary Matt Wrack addressed the pension debate in a much firmer and militant manner than his predecessor would have done. He said: "This union is not crushed or defeated. It is united and will be ready for a fight on pensions... We have to avoid the government playing divide and rule amongst the unions. We have to ensure we fight together in a co-ordinated fashion."
He added that while the union will negotiate with ministers, the government had to show it was serious in those negotiations. Otherwise the union would prepare the way for a strike ballot to defend pensions, after a recall conference.
This is a step forward from the FBU. But some activists may question why, given the agreement at the last conference that any attack on pensions would result in an immediate ballot for action, there has to be the added stage of a recall conference before a ballot.
Although a recall conference may possibly build the mood for action, the reports from delegates showed the white hot anger existing against the government's pension plans. Also, with Blair and Blunkett having signalled that pensions reform was going to be a major government battleground, any delay could see the FBU lagging behind other unions.
In The Socialist 19 May 2005: