Socialist Party
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25 October 2002

Fighting for a Living Wage

Railworkers say...

Don't Work In Unsafe Conditions

LONDON UNDERGROUND plans to close 19 stations when the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) takes strike action. They plan to run the rest of the network as normal, despite having no idea how their staff and passengers' safety can be safeguarded.

Bill Johnson, London Underground worker

The Green Goddesses that will provide fire cover won't carry breathing apparatus and troops operating them will have no experience of dealing with emergencies on public transport or in deep tunnels.

Asked what level of training the troops will receive London Underground management just said it would be an "appropriate level". Asked what an appropriate level of training would be they replied that they don't know.

The government can always rely on Underground bosses to do its dirty work. They ignored mounting evidence from the national railways that PPP will be neither safe nor efficient. Now they're ignoring real safety issues posed by a firefighters' strike so the government can claim to be coping with the FBU action.

The executives of the two main rail unions, Aslef and RMT, are due to meet on 25 October to discuss the implications for tube and rail workers.

Both Mick Rix (General Secretary Aslef) and Bob Crow (General Secretary RMT) have made it known they believe workers can refuse to carry out duties in an unsafe environment under existing health and safety laws.

Staff refusing to carry out unsafe duties, such as running trains without fire cover, would not be taking strike action and workers would not accept any disciplinary measures or pay deductions against those involved.

Both unions need to explain this position to members quickly. Some members think they're being asked to take strike action in support of the FBU rather than refusing to operate an unsafe service. Workers also need to be made aware of the totally inadequate arrangements being botched up to provide fire cover during the strikes.

Of course many tubeworkers are very happy to support the FBU in any way possible. When we took our strike action for pay a few weeks ago we were told that the firefighters had a much better case than us.

Now the FBU demand a living wage they're told nurses are more deserving. If the nurses strike no doubt it will be at the expense of porters and cleaners!

All public-sector workers must ensure that public safety is not sacrificed to help Blair's war on the FBU. Every trade unionist and worker must support action, by any group of workers, to force up wages which can only add to pressure for an increase in wages overall.

The FBU dispute comes at the same time as local government workers, teachers and workers across public-sector workplaces, are planning strikes. What is needed now is generalised action.

Individual unions and union leaders must put pressure on the TUC to call a one-day, public sector-wide strike on workers' pay and conditions and to oppose privatisation.

Socialist Councillors Back Firefighters

COUNCILLOR DAVE Nellist, leader of the Socialist Group on Coventry council has sent a public message of support from the group to the city's firefighters' union:

"Socialists in Coventry fully support the FBU demand for 30,000 a year. 8 an hour take-home pay doesn't seem too much for the danger they face.

"In fact, the 40% rise they've demanded is almost exactly what Cabinet ministers awarded themselves last year, what top directors have awarded themselves over the last two years, and what chief officers on Coventry council have been awarded over the last three years. Government spokespersons criticising the FBU for 'opening the floodgates' have left it a bit late.

"The 40% demand, to bring their pay up to similar levels to others in comparable jobs, only seems such a large jump because firefighters have been stuck so long with a 25-year-old pay formula and have left it many years before their frustration finally boiled over into a demand for action.

"I'm not too worried about Tony Blair condemning their strike action - I'm hard pushed to think of a strike that Tony Blair has actually supported in the 20 years since I first met him.

"I hope to meet members of Coventry's fire service over the next few days to discuss how to build an effective solidarity campaign to support the firefighters and their families. We all rely on the courage and self sacrifice of firefighters at times of emergencies.

"Now it's time for working people to give support to the FBU in their fight for a fair rate of pay for the dangerous job they do."

Where Will The Money Come From?

"WE BACK the firefighters' strike, they're worth every penny, but where's the money going to come from?"

Roger Shrives

Most firefighters and their supporters will hear that argument over the coming weeks, especially when an unsympathetic capitalist press gets to work.

At present, a fully qualified firefighter gets 21,531 a year for a 42-hour week, working shifts around the clock. (See below)

Do the press ask "where the money comes from" when rich chief executives get a huge pay rise? No.

But these bosses' pay went up by an average 89% over the last five years. At least 130 company directors got paid over 1 million each last year.

Tony Blair gave himself a 40% pay rise, shortly after the last general election. The rise, worth about 50,000 a year, was postponed from 1997 when the Senior Salaries Review Board recommended it, but it was still a slap in the face for the rest of the public-sector workforce.

Workers' average earnings grew only 3.4% in 2001 - the lowest rise for 35 years. The present wage offensive is merely catching up on years of underpaying.

We say make big business and the rich pay for our services. Top business corporations used to pay much higher corporation tax on profits and on capital gains.

Despite years of cuts in this taxation, by the year 2000 it accounted for 1.8% of gross domestic product (GDP - broadly Britain's national income). With a GDP of 970 billion it brought around 17.4 billion into government coffers.

Last year, 2001, after even more corporation tax cuts for big business in New Labour budgets, corporation tax only accounted for 0.6% of national income. In other words it brought in only 5.82 billion.

So the government has given 11.64 billion to disgustingly rich businessmen in one year through corporation tax cuts alone.

The cost of meeting the firefighters' pay claim would be 400 million, so bringing corporation tax back up to 33% would very easily pay this and other wage claims.

On top of that, years of high employment have, up to now, given the government higher revenue from tax. Most middle-income earners are paying the same rate of taxation as the super-rich.

This trend has been increased by rises in other more regressive forms of taxation such as National Insurance, which is capped on earnings above 600 a week - so the rich pay less.

The best way to meet the wages bill would be through a socialist society where the working class run society and decide where the money is spent. But even within capitalism there's plenty of money to pay the firefighters.

Government's Pay Policy Undermines Safety

ANDY GILCHRIST, FBU general secretary has already said it is highly questionable whether certain sectors, including the nuclear industry and the railways, could operate safely during a strike.

After the meeting on 21 October with Tony Blair he told the BBC: "If we talk and resolve the issue of pay then there need be no issue about safety or indeed people being put at risk". He said the meeting had showed the government's alternative arrangements for fire and rescue cover were "wholly inadequate".

During a firefighters' strike, workers may be forced to leave unsafe workplaces and the rail unions and other public sector unions like UNISON are considering what to do to ensure their members and the public's safety is protected.

'Opening The Floodgates' On Public-Sector Pay

THE GOVERNMENT is arguing that the firefighters should wait for the fire service review to report before continuing their fight for a living wage. But the FBU's strike bulletin reported how Sir Tony Young, a member of the review body, told FBU officials at the Labour Party conference: "The review team is not going to deliver what you want and the FBU will have to accept that."

What has become clear is the government's fear of the effect of a successful pay campaign by the firefighters on other public-sector workers. The Local Government Association declared that settling the firefighters' claim would "open the floodgates".

Over the last few years the employers, local councils, have been trying to cut costs in the fire service by closing stations and reducing the number of vehicles available.

The union have fought these cuts, sometimes with strike action but it was clear at a press conference on 17 October that the employers still have cuts on the agenda.

They talk about 'modernisation' but what they mean is longer hours, fewer firefighters, fewer control rooms, less fire engines and less fire stations.

Most workers and all public-sector workers will recognise these euphemisms for cuts and privatisation: 'flexibility, contracting- out, sponsors, regional pay, performance-related pay, mixed crewing, multi-tier entry, ring-fence pensions' and more.

Firefighters know that if they do not fight tooth and nail in this pay campaign, they will have to face these cuts in the future.

Retained Firefighter Answers Media Propaganda

THE PRESS and TV went to town after the Retained Firefighters' Union (RFU) voted to oppose the strike. The impression was given that part-time retained firefighters would not be supporting the whole-timers' strike.

John Bramley, station sub-officer at Bolsover spoke to Jon Dale about the real situation.

"Everybody at this station is a member of the FBU and 100% behind the strike. Whole-timers are worth every penny of the claim and we fully support them. Whatever they get in the final settlement we'll get the same percentage.

"That's why we feel the RFU shouldn't be breaking the strike, because they will benefit from any rise the FBU has won. I'm disappointed that the wrong message has got through about part-timers. People may think that we're not backing the strike when the vast majority of retained are in the FBU.

"In Derbyshire there isn't a full station in the RFU. They may have the odd member here and there but not enough to get a pump out.

"As retained firefighters we're fighting for parity of pay on the fire ground with our whole-time colleagues. That's one of the big things for us.

"At the moment we only get 6.50 an hour when we can be working side-by-side with whole-timers on about 1.50 an hour more, doing the same job. If they end up on 10 an hour we'll get that too."

Fighting for a living wage

"THERE'S 99% support for the strike but we don't want to take strike action. We just don't have any other option.

We haven't plucked the figure of 30,000 out of the air, an independent review body said this would only bring us to the level of equivalent public-sector workers.

"Most of our members at this station cannot afford to live in London and we will have to pay Livingstone's 5 a day congestion charges.

We gave 6,000 to his campaign and he took money from our pension fund. We don't expect favours but he's not very popular with us now."

Firefighter at Mount Pleasant fire station, north London

Twenty-Five Years Ago

THE LAST time the firefighters' union the FBU had a national strike over pay was in 1977, 25 years ago.

Since then major incidents like the King's Cross fire and the Bradford football stadium disaster have meant health and safety issues are much higher up society's agenda.

Like 25 years ago, many firefighters with families now have to claim benefits to get by. The old way of determining firefighters' pay means they have fallen further and further behind others such as the police who are on starting salary of 19,842 compared to a salary of 17,000 for a new firefighter.

In 1977, the then Labour government was determined to maintain their 10% pay limit. Many firefighters then, as now, were forced to claim benefits and do second jobs to survive.

During the nine-week strike, the press foamed at the mouth. The Times excelled itself by urging the Labour government to resist the firefighters' claim and ignore other workers' support : "The longer the strike goes on the better reason the government has to be ready to ride out any temporary gusts of public opinion.

"The fireman's wages are not low - certainly not by comparison with farm labourers or some of the soldiers in the green goddesses, their job involves very obvious non-monetary personal rewards."

In contrast, The Militant's (The Socialist's predecessor) editorial in December 1977 said: "If the firefighters win, millions of other workers will benefit. Next in line are one million very low paid local authority workers...

"The firemen must win! The pressure must be increased. The TUC must give every assistance necessary to win the strike. They must call mass demonstrations of all trade unionists in every city to show the support and determination of the rest of the labour movement to see the strike through to victory."

But even before the current strikes begin, the Times is at it again, trying to split them from other workers, using its usual balanced arguments:

"Unlike teachers, firefighters are not under severe pressure throughout their working day. Less than 10 per cent of a firefighter's time on duty is spent attending incidents. Their hours enable them to have two jobs. Unlike London Underground drivers, their work is not repetitive, lonely and boring.

"Unlike nurses, doctors and paramedics, they do not routinely save lives on a daily basis. Their day-to-day personal safety is probably threatened less than that of a patrolling police officer. Firefighters run less risk of serious injury or death than those who work in construction or agriculture."

In spite of the press propaganda, the 1977 strike, with massive public support, resulted in victory and established the current pay formula, based on comparisons with industrial manual workers' pay. That formula is now out of date and firefighters are being forced into their second national strike by an intransigent Labour government.

Firefighters Shift Patterns

THE MAJORITY of firefighters and emergency fire control staff work the following shift pattern:

Monday 9am to 6pm =9 hours

Tuesday 9am to 6pm =9 hours

Wednesday 6pm to 12pm =6 hours

Thursday 12pm to 9am,then 6pm to 12pm =15 hours

Friday 12pm to 9am =9 hours

Saturday and Sunday off

The new week starts again on Tuesday, moving the whole shift system forward by one day a week.

Source: Firefighter, the FBU magazine