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Lessons of the Firefighters' dispute
The FBU Dispute - Then, Now and Why
FBU strike 2002: Firefighters' picket line, Homerton, London, photo by Paul Mattsson
THE LATE summer of 2002 saw the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) getting up a full head of steam to pursue a four-point pay claim with their local government employers.
By Paul Child, FBU group chair for the Waltham Forest and Enfield stations.
The four points were:
- £30Kpa as a basic wage for the ordinary firefighter.
- A new pay formula linked to the Professional and Technical pay band to be applied annually.
- Pro-rata pay parity for the part time (retained) firefighters.
- Pay parity for the Fire Control room Operators.
Morale amongst the members was high for this dispute; a whopping 95% for strike action was achieved in the ballot. Members were despairing of the contemptuous way Fire Authorities were behaving. Fire chiefs with fat-cat pay hikes were forever seeking ways to make cuts, whether it was staff numbers, stations, fire engines, training, call handling or PFI schemes.
Meanwhile the previous pay formula was no longer keeping pace with the pay levels enjoyed by similar professionals. Based as it was on the diminished 'skilled worker' pay category, it also had built-in penalties on overtime and area-weighting payments that moderated any increase.
This was certainly fertile ground from which to launch a fully justified counter-attack against the employers. And a campaign based on pay instead of the more usual defence of conditions quickly gained popularity with the membership.
The FBU executive dismissed out of hand the government's sop of an enquiry by Professor Bain. Strike dates were set and a confidence-building programme of disobedience broke out. Members wore campaign T-shirts and refused to change back to uniform. They put banners over the stations and flags on the engines and refused to remove them. Awkwardness and working to contract were other tactics widely and spontaneously employed. All was set for an energetic campaign.
That was until the first strikes were called off on the pretence of progress in talks. The prime moment had passed and it was a few weeks later when the first short strikes actually occurred. On the eve of the week-long strike the executive was prepared to call it off and to talk about a 16% offer from the employers. The government now knew that the FBU's number was 16% and scuppered the deal. John Prescott stayed in bed to dream of what he wanted in return, all kindly listed for him by the independent, but friend of New Labour, Professor Bain.
The week-long strike went ahead. It started with the FBU accusing the government of deliberately wrecking a satisfactory outcome to the negotiations, in order to slap down the unrest in the public sector workforces by making an example of the FBU. It finished with ministers calling for modernisation of the service. That is New Labour's euphemism for cuts, privatisation and withdrawal of firefighters' rights and conditions.
During the first strikes the union's activists and ordinary members did well in the media. Ministers were publicly embarrassed and the debate was being won. The spin machine, New Labour's weapon of mass distraction, had been temporarily neutered. To fill the void, ministers and their pals in the press resorted to vitriol, threats, slurs and lies. But public opinion stayed with us.
Another truce while talks continued saw the dispute rumble into the New Year. A couple more 48-hour strikes took place, followed by even more talks but now the countdown to the invasion of Iraq was nearing its end and the armed forces standing by as makeshift firefighters were needed elsewhere.
Strikes on the eve of the invasion were called off and even more talks produced a final offer. This final offer was revised a few times around the same inadequate theme and was finally accepted by a FBU conference after heavy selling by the executive.
Much of the detail in the agreement was to be finalised by the 31 October. This in brief is the deal now out for consultation with the membership:
- Minimum 7% rise for all members. (Those few who get more will have the difference taken from their long-service increment if applicable) 4.34% rise next July. (This will take the ordinary firefighter to £25K.)
- Control room operators to get 95% of their operational counterparts' salary.
- Retained firefighters to be paid at the same hourly rate as whole-timers.
- The long-service increment to be reduced in 2006 and abolished in 2007. (A pay cut of £990).
- An annual pay formula rise equal to the average rise achieved by the professional and technical category of workers until 2007 only.
In comparing the resulting position with what the campaign set out to achieve it is no surprise that London members are dissatisfied and rejected it. The executive had assured the membership that the long-service increment was safe, a position even endorsed by John Prescott back in May. It was inept by the FBU negotiators to wave it good-bye without anything concrete to take its place.
So what went wrong?
So what went wrong? As a minor official of the FBU, not privy to the counsels of the executive I will now give my personal overview of the tactics employed in this dispute.
But first we must remember this. We took on the entire state, with its limitless wealth and power. We gave notice of strike action, in compliance of the law and to allow other firefighting arrangements to be deployed in good time.
So what strengths we had should have been used effectively and not meekly thrown away. The FBU is a tiny union with no immediate industrial clout. The members are spread evenly through the population and therefore pose no electoral threat to the government. So our few advantages should have been vigorously applied.
I now believe that Andy Gilchrist and the executive thought that a substantial pay rise could be achieved with sabre rattling alone. They hoped that brave talk and a big majority of members voting for strike action would win through without taking direct action.
As soon as it became apparent that that was not to be the case, the executive grasped at any flimsy excuse to cancel strikes instead of ramping up the action. This was wrong.
It sent the clearest of messages to the employers that the FBU wasn't really committed to the cause and it demoralised our own members, who were put on hold when they were mentally ready for action. No strikes should have been called off until a substantial offer was definitely on the table. The credibility of our resolve to make a fight of it was thrown away by the executive and we resorted to prevarication, very much the home ground of the state.
To be so easily moved into defensive prevarication from the offensive was a disaster to the campaign. It turned the earlier bullish decision to have nothing to do with the Professor Bain enquiry from the right one to the wrong one.
We should have participated in the enquiry. Because by now Professor Bain had wandered the country and gathered together the employers' wish list of change completely unopposed by the FBU. Professor Bain's report, with no input from the FBU, was entirely written from the employers' desire for 'best value' and with their idea of a fair wage for firefighters. It became the basis of the eventual settlement.
The next opportunity to further our cause was Christmas and the New Year. With Iraq on the horizon and the armed forces preparing for a long stay abroad after a possible hard fight and casualties, a holiday at home was important to their morale.
Cracks were showing between the top brass and ministers, not just over our dispute but the whole Iraq business. I won't forget the look on Mr Hoon's face when the Chief of Staff announced to a press conference that it was not the job of his people to cross picket lines.
Strikes should have been declared at minimum notice for the Christmas period. This would have seriously pissed off the service people. The police and the control room staff would have been none too happy as well, all of whom would have had their holidays cancelled to cover the strike. Pressure would have been applied on the government.
As an extra bonus it would also have allowed FBU members to have Christmas at home for once instead of being on duty at fire stations. No strikes were ordered, another chance thrown away.
The original concept of picketing was sound; it keeps the members supporting each other and the dispute before the public's eye. Brownie points were won in the media every time members left the line to assist at incidents. This annoyed the government to such an extent that an order was issued to the police to refuse help and to order the pickets from the scene.
I was aghast to later discover that an arrangement had been entered into with Mr Prescott to ensure that picketing firefighters could be utilised in case of a very serious incident occurring, such as a terrorist outrage or a plane crash.
The pickets present at fire stations, courtesy of the FBU executive, meant in effect that Mr Prescott had a Fire Brigade. It was an unpaid Fire Brigade, available and ready to deal with anything important to the government.
Ordinary people whose house fires and car crashes are of no matter to the government were easily sacrificed during strikes. But a possible disaster happening that could do economic damage or threaten the very office of the New Labour government was in fact safely covered by striking firefighters.
Another advantage given away. Ministers slept soundly at night with their interests guarded, for free, by the very people that they abused during the day. Surely the only arrangement ever made should have been just this: agree to £30K and then we go back on duty, until then the responsibility for disaster is yours.
From plain strategic lunacy now mix in the ignominy of hypocrisy. On the eve of another FBU conference the executive cancelled the strike without seeking the permission of the delegates. Why? Not because of any better offer but because the invasion of Iraq was just hours away.
The FBU up to that point was an anti-war organisation. Many members, including myself I am proud to say, took part in that fantastic march in London and then the executive facilitated that invasion and occupation by cancelling our strike.
The government now had full use of all of its troops, no longer having to keep some cannon fodder back to cover for us, again by kind courtesy of the FBU executive. It was said that some members, especially the ex-service people, wouldn't strike during hostilities. Of the many I spoke to I could only find one who would have been unhappy to go on strike at that time. A few even turned that argument on its head by saying that it was their duty to be on strike in order to protect their ex comrades from the dangers of participating in Iraq.
Did the executive give way under the threat of the government outlawing our strikes and the thought of the vilification we would have got from the press and possibly the public? If that is the case then add cowardice and vanity to the charge sheet.
To end on a positive note, let's round up the lessons learned and the mistakes that are not to be repeated, whether by the FBU or any other public sector strikers for that matter. We had the courage to fail, now find the courage to try again.
- Whatever strengths or advantages you have use them fully.
- Cause maximum disruption to the employer with the minimum inconvenience to yourselves.
- Realise that all concessions will be wrested from the employer by action alone, there will be nothing given to you by 'playing the game'.
- Ensure that the members decide the campaign tactics, not the executive.
- Remain steadfast; do not allow worry to eat into you.
- Keep busy, work at the campaign by taking the argument out to the public, insist that your comrades do the same. Do not just sit around the picket fire or stay at home, depression and defeat target the inactive.
In The Socialist 1 November 2003: