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Firefighters' Wary Of New Deal
FIREFIGHTERS ARE being consulted on a proposed 'deal' recommended by their national executive (NEC), which union leaders hope will end the dispute over last year's pay deal.
A special meeting of brigade reps and the NEC last week were led to believe that negotiations with employers had effectively broken down and that an escalation of the action would be put to the union's conference on 15 June.
Yet, FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist informed an NEC meeting the day after the reps' meeting that the employers now accepted the majority of the FBU's proposals on night time duties. A claim which is disputed by a significant layer of FBU activists, who are arguing for more time to discuss the proposals.
Some on the NEC wanted to sign the deal there and then. But, a majority decided that the deal should go out to the membership for consultation before a final NEC decision on 2 June.
Whatever new form of words is decided, the underlying problem remains that it is still within the framework of a bad deal that was accepted by Gilchrist and the national leaders last year. Whilst there is relief amongst firefighters that strike action could be avoided, the proposed deal still leaves FBU members concerned and confused.
One brigade rep in Wales told the socialist:
"I believe this could be a recipe for continual disputes with local management about what are essential duties. For example, a chief officer could decide that cleaning a stand pipe at 3am was essential.
"The union would disagree and the only way it would be resolved was by going into dispute. There's no doubt in my mind that we will coming back to these issues in a few months because the original deal we signed up to was poor and this could make it worse.
"I think the majority of the NEC doesn't have confidence in the membership, they don't feel they can deliver strike action. Some argue that they won't get the same 89% vote as last time. But that vote was exceptional and came after a six-month campaign.
"Whilst we might not get as high level of support this time, I'm confident with four to six weeks campaigning we would get a respectable 'yes' vote for action."
Many FBU activists have correctly warned of the deficiencies of the new proposals but they face a dilemma about how to take any industrial action forward, when the Gilchrist leadership has demobilised and undermined the membership's confidence.
A firefighter from Northern Ireland told us:
"The members had their fingers burned over the leadership's handling of the strike last year and don't have much confidence that they would handle it any better now. That has produced a mood on the ground that members would settle for action short of a strike. They think it could be more effective."
But even if the Gilchrist leadership get their way for now it is inevitable that there will be further battles against the employers and within the union.
The Grassroots FBU group are calling for members to reject the NEC recommendations and for the issues to be decided by conference rather than the NEC. But if the NEC attempt to railroad it through, they call for NEC members to be mandated to reject.
But, as important as these issues of democracy in the union are, they are insufficient in themselves to overturn the Gilchrist leadership and build action to overturn last year's deal.
The Left in the union needs to unite and tap into the angry mood of many firefighters - both against the employers and their own union leadership - and put forward a coherent strategy that will inspire firefighters to take action on pay and conditions.
This is dependent on clearly showing that the battle in the union is not just over the lack of democracy and the lack of bottle of the Gilchrist leadership. The Left must also show that there will be determined and effective action that can force the New Labour employers - nationally and locally - to retreat.
In The Socialist 5 June 2004:
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