Firefighters Reject ‘New’ Offer

THE 250-strong recall conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) met in Brighton last week and decisively rejected the latest “offer” from the employers.

Bill Mullins and Matt Wrack

The new offer was simply a re-wording of the offer already seen and rejected by the vast majority of FBU members. A key part is the attempt to end current national agreements on duty systems and hours of work. It would give employers the right to unilaterally impose new shift systems on firefighters – without the agreement of the workforce or the union.

It would also give employers the right to veto any attempt by the union to register a dispute under the current disputes procedure.

Remarkably, the ‘new’ offer was delivered on the eve of the conference and deliberately timed to ambush the delegates.

The union leadership claimed that sufficient copies of the document could not be produced for all delegates prior to the conference. This was despite the fact that the conference was held in a hotel which also functions as a business centre! Most delegates were not actually given a copy of the document until they sat in their conference seats.

There was then an attempt to prevent new motions being moved by closing the conference Standing Orders committee. This decision was challenged by delegates. London delegate Matt Wrack moved rejection of the Standing Orders committee report on the grounds that delegates had just been given a new document and must be allowed time to read it – and to submit motions if they wished. The challenge was carried with just four votes against. The tone of the day was set.

On the previous evening the union’s Executive Council had decided, by twelve votes to six, to recommend acceptance of the new deal. They also voted to cancel the strike planned for 6pm on 20 March. Many delegates were angered at the decision to cancel the strike without allowing the conference to debate the issues. As in most unions, the conference is supposed to be the supreme decision-making body.

It was clear that many, many delegates were angry at the Executive Council’s decisions. A number of motions opposing the recommendation were submitted, including motions from Greater Manchester, Essex, Derbyshire and London.

Eventually the conference carried the London motion, moved by Matt Wrack. This called for a recommendation to reject the offer. The clear understanding of the conference was that this decision would be taken at a further re-call conference in two weeks time.

However, the union’s head office officials have now arranged the conference with a four-week gap. It appears that the union’s leadership want to avoid at all costs calling strike action during the Iraq war.

The day following the conference, John Prescott has said that he will impose a deal upon the fire fighters by amending the Fire Services Act.

He added insult to injury when he added that the imposed pay would be less than the offer on the table from the local government employers. This crude threat has been met with derision by many activists who are more confident than ever that their members will see through this blackmail and reject the boss’s threats.

An imposed pay deal would not mean that the firefighters’ right to strike would be withdrawn, but it would definitely mean that this would be the route New Labour is preparing to go down. As Bob Crow of the RMT union said on television: “This would be the thin end of the wedge in outlawing the right to strike for all public-sector workers.”

If the rejection is confirmed, then the rolling programme of strikes must be restarted immediately.

Many delegates were rightly suspicious of the leadership’s handling of the strikes up to now and the fact that there have been far more strikes cancelled than have actually taken place.

The London brigade also put down on the conference agenda (as reported in last week’s socialist) the call for the strike to be put under the control of a rank and file body, elected from all brigades. The Standing Orders committee ruled this out of order but the issue will not go away.

Much time has been lost in this campaign by the FBU leadership’s vacillations. In fact, every hesitation by the FBU leadership has been seen as a sign of weakness by the employers and government. Far from making concessions they have simply hardened their stance.

Equally many ordinary trade unionists who support the firefighters are wondering what is happening. This indecision should be answered with immediate action. The plans by Prescott to impose a deal and implicitly threaten firefighters’ right to strike in the longer term cannot be used as an excuse to back down.

FBU members must reject the attempted intimidation by the government.

  • Reject the offer
  • Defend national conditions and the national shift system
  • Strike for the full claim
  • Defend the right to strike.