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From The Socialist newspaper, 31 January 2003

Build solidarity action with the firefighters

Save The Fire Service

"WE HAVE to stick to our guns and stay firm, stay united and stick with the two 48-hour strikes that have been called." BILL HENDY, Avon Fire Brigades Union Secretary, spoke to MARK BAKER just before the current firefighters' strikes.

His words are even more relevant now that the government is taking the gloves off, as Prescott makes plans to take direct control of the fire service.

What began as a battle against low pay, to renegotiate an outdated pay formula, has turned into a fight for the fire service and for the FBU as a viable union.

The government's outrage that any group of workers could have the cheek to ask for a living wage of 30,000 has turned into a vicious battle to impose a low pay increase, cut jobs and fire services, undermine working conditions and weaken the union.

The FBU calculated that the proposed cuts in the Bain report will result in the loss of 4,500 jobs and the closure of 150 fire stations. These must be resisted by the whole trade union movement.

Firefighters have proved their determination to fight. Other workers have shown their support. Every picket line can give examples of the public support they've been getting. This must be organised to ensure that the firefighters are not starved back to work.

As John Baldwin, from Kingsland station, Hackney, London explained: "Forging links between the different unions is really important. We've had a lot of support here from other unions. But also, signing petitions, holding meetings in colleges, local communities etc all help. There will always be someone willing to come and speak, to forge links with local communities."

But solidarity action may also be necessary to defend the democratic right to strike and to stop the decimation of the fire service.

The FBU leadership must call on the TUC to organise such action in spite of the anti-union laws and be prepared to call a one-day general strike in defence of democratic trade union rights.

The firefighters can win, with the support and solidarity of the trade union movement and the working class as a whole.

Firefighters Can Win

THE 55,000 firefighters who have taken strike action, have not only widespread public support but also the industrial muscle to defeat the government and win their demand for a decent wage that reflects their responsibilities and skills.

According to The Guardian, Blair and his warmongering government have been forced to reduce the number of troops covering the dispute.

They are making troops work longer shifts to make up for the thousands of troops they are sending to the Gulf.

New Labour ministers were taken aback by the decision to go ahead with strike action on 28 and 29 January.

They confidently expected the union leadership to call them off, even though the government declared that their position had not changed a bit.

They were still insisting that even the 4% pay increase from last November, as part of a three year deal, was inextricably linked to the FBU accepting the thousands of job losses implicit in the Bain report.

Nick Raynsford, minister 'responsible' for the fire service, complained that the FBU was " no longer credible". John Prescott said that continuing the dispute would mean less money available to settle the dispute.

The local government employers voiced what is central to the bosses in this dispute, when they said that the union could not "have a veto on how a publicly funded and democratically accountable service can be managed" (Financial Times 28/01/03).

In other words, they want to end the level of workers' control that the firefighters have over the fire service.

The hypocrisy of these employers knows no bounds. They want to cut the number of firefighters and the number of fire stations and engines but condemn the FBU for striking at a time of "heightened public anxiety about threats to safety".

It is the employers that don't give a fig about safety as is demonstrated by the mad dash for privatisation of the London Underground and the rail system.

Firefighters have been coming off the picket lines to save lives but they get little appreciation for this.

As we went to press, Prescott announced in the Commons that he would reactivate the 1947 Fire Services Act, repealed in 1959, to take control of the fire service and impose a pay settlement on the firefighters.

Firefighters need to meet this challenge with increased determination. They have everything to win by continuing the struggle, especially when war seems imminent.

Many increasingly 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 the firefighters mean business and give confidence to workers to take solidarity action as the Tube workers did before Christmas.

Firefighters In Determined Mood

AS FIREFIGHTERS started their strike on 28 January, it was clear from reports to The Socialist that the mood on the picket lines was still determined.

Many firefighters are concluding that the threats to the fire service and to the Fire Brigades Union itself will have to be met with firm action, both from the FBU and the whole trade union movement.

Pickets from Whitechapel Red Watch in east London told us: "If these job losses go through, in five years time you'll have to wait 20 minutes for a fire engine.

"All the other services, where there has been privatisation, have got worse. My old man was ill and it took twenty minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

"The FBU has got to disaffiliate from Labour. How can it not after what they've done? How can any firefighter vote Labour now? This was political from the start. But we need an alternative to vote for."

BILL HENDY, Avon Fire Brigades Union Secretary commented: "I think the issue critically is how much pressure we can put on central government and local employers to actually get back around the table and start to negotiate without preconditions.

"I don't think we're looking to call off the action but there is a hope and belief that there will be a negotiated settlement which will get us what we set out to achieve, without the pain of losing massive amounts of money by being out on strike.

"But I think most firefighters are realistic and recognise that in order to keep the pressure on the employers and the government we need to keep the strikes going."

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In The Socialist 31 January 2003:

No To War On Iraq

Preparing For War

Build solidarity action with the firefighters

After Victoria Climbie: What future for child protection?

Fight Back Against Fees

Iraq War: Blood For Oil

World Social Forum: For A Socialist Alternative


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