Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/348/5775
Preparing For More Battles
THE ANNUAL conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) will reconvene in Southport on 15 June to discuss calling a national strike ballot. This is after its conference was adjourned on 11 May after the union voted to withdraw from implementation of the June 2003 national pay deal.
The union's leadership called for the conference to be adjourned after the employers refused to agree payment of a 3.5% pay rise held back since last November.
The FBU have now withdrawn from the agreement and urged conference delegates to go back to their brigades to prepare for possible industrial action.
However, left activists in the union felt that the breakdown of negotiations was seized upon by a leadership desperate to avoid a vote on the union breaking its links with the Labour Party, either through a complete disaffiliation from the party or by democratising its funds. This debate was scheduled for 12 May.
Either way, the vote would have represented an 'embarrassing' setback for the FBU and Labour Party leaders. And the FBU leaders, in jumping out of one sticky corner have landed themselves in another one which appears to be even narrower.
Also, there was suspicion that the FBU leaders would use the intervening month to prepare a witch-hunt against leading FBU activists who are challenging for more accountability and democracy in the union.
Before the conference, left activists were informed by the press that an investigation was being conducted into them which could lead to them being barred from union office for a specified period or even for life. It was felt that this was designed to stop them standing in any national FBU election.
It was clear in the limited time the conference did meet that the leadership around Andy Gilchrist were going to face a tough time. In the opening hour of the conference the standing orders committee was overturned four times and the address of FBU President Ruth Winters, attempting to defend the pay deal and conduct of last year's strike action went down like the proverbial lead balloon.
After an hour of fraternal addresses the conference adjourned for an emergency national executive followed by delegation meetings.
WHEN THE conference reconvened, it heard TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and debated two emergency resolutions around the issue of whether or not the conference would continue.
Brendan Barber attempted to win support for the leadership by saying that last year's FBU deal was "one of the best deals for any group in the public sector", only to be met with laughs of derision.
Moving the emergency resolution from the executive committee (EC), FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist said that it was a myth that the FBU had always engaged in "a spirit of partnership" on the 2003 pay agreement which had now been thrown into "serious jeopardy" by the employers. He also warned that the "government had no intention of making partnership a reality".
He appealed for union members to show the maximum unity and leave aside divisions over the pay deal and the Labour Party. He called for challenges to the leadership to be left aside for now.
However, recognising the leadership was not going to get away with postponing the conference for another year, he was forced to give a commitment that it would reconvene at exactly the same point within a month.
The second emergency resolution from the London region had the same terms as the EC resolution but called for the conference to continue. Matt Wrack from London explained why the conference should continue to better prepare the members for action.
He said that London had huge concerns about last year's deal which "should not have been settled without clarification on certain key issues." And whilst agreeing that the union needed to prepare for a battle he argued: "The decisions of this conference are central to winning back the hearts and minds of the members. We have not had a conference for two years and key issues like our link with the Labour Party need addressing if we are going to reinvigorate our members."
This was reinforced by Tony Maguire from Northern Ireland who said to applause: "FBU officials that were once trusted are now doubted... the Labour Party has stabbed us in the heart, we have to come away from this conference with the sham of a link to the Labour Party well and truly severed."
Anger at New Labour
All the speakers who argued for continuing the conference were enthusiastically supported but it was clear that the leadership's argument for unity against the bosses was likely to be carried.
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist urged London to withdraw its resolution calling for the conference to continue. Matt Wrack replying said he recognised the mood of conference but he warned the EC: "Don't let us down... we expect unity to apply in all parts of the union and on that basis we will withdraw."
THERE WILL now be an expectation that the FBU leadership must either come up with an improved offer from the Labour employers or that the union will prepare for effective national action if the employers remain intransigent on key issues like night-time stand-down time - one of the most contentious part of the bosses' 'modernisation' package.
The employers' stand will intensify the anger against Labour at local and national level and is more likely to push the union in the direction of disaffiliating from the Labour Party when the conference reconvenes.
In The Socialist 22 May 2004:
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