Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/286/20292
DEPUTY PRIME minister John Prescott's threats to impose a wage settlement on the firefighters and to abolish their right to strike, has caused fury within the trade union movement.
BILL MULLINS explains how the firefighters' dispute can be won, whilst DAVE GORTON puts forward the way to oppose the anti-union laws.
Defend The Right To Strike
Support the firefighters
THE MOVES to impose a wage settlement on the firefighters and John Prescott's threat to their right to strike, is the biggest attack on workers' rights since the introduction of Thatcher's anti-union laws in 1982.
It has caused outrage throughout the trade union movement and is a defining moment in the 100-year link between the trade unions and the Labour Party.
Paul Kenny, the leading candidate for general secretary of the GMB union, said that it marks the beginnings of a civil war in the labour movement. Mick Rix, the leader of the train drivers' union ASLEF has called for John Prescott and Tony Blair to resign.
Prescott, who has already blocked attempts by the FBU to negotiate a settlement, says he wants to force the firefighters back to the negotiating table.
The whole trade union movement must be mobilised against this attack on basic democratic rights. If they get away with it in the fire service then other groups of workers will be next.
Blair and his war-mongering government want to drive the trade unions into the ground. They are preparing for war abroad by stepping up their class war at home.
What must be done?
THE FIREFIGHTERS have demonstrated to the whole trade union movement that they are prepared to fight.
But what started as a struggle over pay has become a fight to defend basic trade union rights.
Many firefighters now feel that an all-out strike would rapidly bring the government to its knees. At the same time it would demonstrate to the whole trade union movement that they mean business. It would give confidence to workers to take solidarity action, as the tube workers did before Christmas.
The bosses have been shocked by the level of support for the firefighters. They thought that they could ride out a few days of strike action by using the troops. But it is clear the troops don't know what they are doing. With the war against Iraq looming ever closer, Tony Blair and John Prescott are desperate to end the strikes.
One-seventh of the British army, about 14,000 soldiers, are on firefighting duties. The generals are complaining that their forces are stretched to breaking point. Sixteen warships are tied up in navy dockyards whilst their firefighting crews are covering the strikes.
Those troops have to work longer shifts to make up for the troops being sent to the Gulf. Blair's pre-Christmas boast that the firefighters' jobs were being easily covered by the military is turning to dust.
Insurance companies are warning that they will be putting up premiums to cover for property losses in fires the troops just allow to burn out.
The same insurance companies have said that the closure of fire stations and the reduction of firefighters at night, as the Bain report requires, will also lead to an increase in premiums.
In other words fire damage to property is more likely as a result of the government's 'modernisation' programme.
PRESCOTT'S MOVE to impose a settlement included the implicit threat to outlaw the firefighters' strike.
The attorney general is now expected to declare that because the immediate prospect of war constitutes a "material change in circumstances" he will seek an injunction.
This might be an act of desperation by New Labour but if they are allowed to get away with it they will be encouraged to impose the same on other groups of workers.
Who's next in the government's firing line? Ambulance workers, nurses, social workers? Who else will be accused by the right-wing press of "betraying the national interest"?
What other groups of workers will have their right to strike outlawed if the firefighters are defeated?
Some years ago the Tories withdrew the teaching unions' right to negotiate their pay and conditions and through the pay review body imposed new terms and conditions.
New Labour could be tempted to withdraw the right to strike as well if they get away with it in the fire service.
The Tories outlawed the prison officers' right to strike and despite a pre-election promise to their union, the POA, Blair has not reversed the ban.
The leadership of the whole trade union movement, especially the new Left trade union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT and others, must campaign and mobilise their own members to get behind the firefighters.
They should demand that the TUC general council calls upon the whole of the organised working class to take solidarity action in support of the firefighters and to defend the basic democratic right to strike for all workers.
They should name the date for a national day of action. This should include mass demos and solidarity strike action where it can be organised, coinciding with one of the FBU's planned strike days in the next few weeks.
The rail unions' leaders, especially after the near-disaster at Chancery Lane tube station in London, should call on their own members not to work on the days that the firefighters are on strike. If the management threaten legal action, then the rail unions ASLEF and the RMT should defy the courts.
That should also be the case for the FBU leadership if Prescott goes through with his threat to ban strikes. The Left trade union leaders should make it clear that the issues are too important to be left to the prejudiced capitalist courts.
At local level, trade union branches should organise solidarity conferences of the firefighters with local trade unionists.
These conferences should make practical plans to take action along with the firefighters wherever they can. The issue of workplace safety assessments should be raised as part of this local strategy.
The TUC should be put under massive pressure by the Left trade union leaders and all union branches to prepare to organise a 24-hour general strike in the event of the government going through with its threats to outlaw the firefighters' right to strike.
If they refuse, the Left should organise a national solidarity conference and be prepared to go over the heads of the right-wing dominated TUC.
Many firefighters, sick of the attitude of the Labour government, have filled in the forms to opt out of paying the political fund.
The forthcoming FBU conference is likely to break the link completely with the Labour Party. This makes it doubly important that the conference goes ahead.
The FBU should put itself at the head of the movement in the unions to break with Labour and build a new trade union-based mass workers' party.
The unions still need political representation but they will not get it from the pro-capitalist, market-dominated Labour Party.
Some individual Labour MPs might support the firefighters and are opposed to what the Labour government is doing but whilst they are tied to the Labour Party they are impotent.
By leading the campaign for a new mass workers' party the FBU will ensure that workers have a party that represents the millions and not the millionaires.
Firefighters React To Prescott's Threats
STRIKING FIREFIGHTERS at Thornaby on Tees remain in a defiant and angry mood following Prescott's threats to impose a settlement on the dispute.
"Fuck the fat bastard!" was one of the pickets' response when asked about Prescott. The pickets are confident that the next 48-hour strike will go ahead and they were hoping for some decisive action from the TUC following Prescott's threat.
Pickets at Forest Hill, south London responded forcefully to Prescott's speech. Tony Owens, FBU, commented "at least it's clear now that it's a battle between us and the government"
Many of the pickets wanted to know what the TUC were going to do to turn promised support into action now Prescott has thrown down the gauntlet.
As we talked a passing driver wound down his window and shouted "Don't give up!" Firefighters - and the public - had heard Prescott and were determined to stand firm.
The amount of car horns tooting support went up after Prescott had spoken - the public were showing whose side they were on.
Lewisham firefighters' support group is holding a lobby of "Fire Services Minister" Nick Raynsford's surgery at West Greenwich House, Greenwich High Road, by Greenwich BR. Saturday 8 February, 1.45 pm.
LOCAL FBU officials in Yorkshire, speaking at Socialist Party meetings, gave their reaction to the latest threats.
"WHATEVER THE FBU says, we can't stop 55,000 firefighters turning round saying this is against our democratic right to take industrial action and walk out of the doors, whether there's an injunction or not."
Andy Killingbeck, FBU Leeds divisional secretary
"WE SHOULDN'T have cancelled strikes. The employers took it as a sign of weakness. The brigade reps have made it quite clear that the FBU must not cancel any more strikes unless a substantial offer is made...
"After Prescott's statement a member from Barnsley told me that three months ago he wouldn't have voted for an all-out strike but now he would."
Jerry Pagan, South Yorkshire brigade chair.
- Defend the right to strike.
- TUC - organise a 24-hour general strike.
- Defy the anti-union laws, organise solidarity strike action from below, with the FBU.
- Break with New Labour, build a new mass workers' party.
Tackling The Anti-Union Laws
FIVE YEARS into a Labour government and two decades-worth of Tory anti-trade union legislation remains in place. And now New Labour are proposing further attacks on the right to strike.
From 1979 the Tories constructed a framework of laws intended to curb the power of workers and their unions. They relied on union leaders to ease through the introduction of unpopular legislation.
Faced with sequestration of funds if workers challenged the new laws and therefore a threat to their own cosseted lifestyles, most leaders readily accepted the role of policing their own memberships.
The two most fundamental attacks outlawed secondary action and banned all industrial action unless supported by a positive vote in an individual ballot.
By the time the Tories felt confident enough to take on the big battalions of the working class, particularly the miners in 1984/5, even the more 'progressive' union leaders wrongly believed their members wouldn't embark on solidarity action just because it was illegal.
Despite a heroic struggle, the miners were defeated. This needn't have been the case.
Workers pledged their support but the trade union movement failed the miners, through the inertia of its leaders.
Ballots have also had a big effect. Where they are held, the vast majority are in favour of action. But unions are now unlikely to call a ballot unless there is a certainty of members voting for action.
The deliberate delays built into this system mean immediate action by workers in response to a specific attack is illegal. Impetus can be irreplaceably lost in the time taken to organise an official ballot.
Outlawing solidarity action and making it as hard as possible for workers to strike at all, was part of the Tories' plans to allow 'the market' to operate unchallenged in industry.
It is clear Labour have no intention of reversing these class laws, except perhaps the necessity for members to vote to maintain a political fund. Labour fear workers will vote to end the link between the unions and Labour. The right-wing trade union leaders also want to see the back of this, given the number of ballots coming up this year.
(Another Tory law was the introduction of balloting for general secretary elections. As the more left-wing candidate has won most of these over the last three years, maybe Labour might revisit this law as well!)
The Labour government has granted workers the 'right' to belong to a trade union. But it is of little use to workers unless it is also accompanied by an enforceable right for their union to be recognised and the right to take action.
The TUC is mounting a recruitment drive aimed at non-unionised workplaces. But there is no right for any union organiser to enter workplaces.
There is no immediate recognition for trade unions - 50% of a workforce has to vote in favour for this to be triggered. Individual union members in workplaces without a recognition agreement are as vulnerable as ever.
Labour has halved the time limits, from two years to one, for which a worker becomes eligible to apply to an employment tribunal. But as Socialist Party members warned prior to 1997, this has meant that many employers now only give workers one-year contracts!
Workers can still legally be sacked after eight weeks on strike. Like the Friction Dynamex workers found as they fought against a vicious management in their factory in Carmarthen. Even after winning a tribunal, they're still picketing every day to get their compensation.
It would be wrong to draw the conclusion that all solidarity and 'unofficial' action has ceased. Workers who have been on picket lines know it is unheard of for postal workers to cross.
This is illegal secondary action but Post Office management know it is not worth forcing the issue with threats against their own workers which will merely provoke further 'unofficial' action.
Until 2002, almost half the days lost through strikes over the previous two years occurred amongst postal workers, often in illegal 'wildcat' strikes against intimidatory actions by local managers.
Tube drivers, members of ASLEF, successfully refused to cross RMT picket lines during a dispute on London Underground (LU) last year. Management could not take any action against them for fear of escalating the dispute with the well-organised LU workers.
At the same time, we can see highlighted both the stranglehold on industrial relations many leaders have allowed the anti-union laws to become and also workers brushing aside the laws, the threats of their employers and the condemnation of their own leaders.
The firefighters have massive sympathy amongst workers in their struggle. Many workers would take supportive action understanding they would also gain from a victory. Yet the issue of solidarity action has been kept solely under the mantle of health and safety.
The 'new breed' of left trade union leaders, the so-called 'awkward squad', have a responsibility to immediately convene a conference of rank and file trade unionists to organise solidarity strike action in defence of the right to strike.
This will not only help the firefighters to victory but will demonstrate how the anti-union legislation can be rendered useless.
The laws won't be repealed through words or public opinion - it will need action from workers. Ironically, it will take illegal unofficial action!
The Socialist Party has many members in positions of influence in the trade union movement, from shop stewards to executive council members.
We have been and will be at the forefront of campaigns that call for the repeal of anti-union legislation.
But we do more than simply sloganise - 'smash the anti-union laws' - we will continue to raise the possibility of solidarity strikes, not dogmatically as a matter of principle, but based on the prevailing mood of workers in a particular industry or workplace.
In The Socialist 7 February 2003: