Firefighters Ready For Battle Again

THE FIREFIGHTERS are preparing to go into battle once again against the government’s attacks on their wages and conditions. The employers have made absolutely no move to accommodate the firefighters’ pay claim of £30K and are now saying conditions are attached to the pre-Christmas offer.

Bill Mullins, Socialist Party industrial organiser

The FBU says: “We have now been offered 4% providing we unreservedly sign up to the Bain report. A further 7% will only be offered when the audit commission are satisfied that the Bain proposals have been fully implemented. This will not be 7% for everybody; it will be an average of 7%. Finally, for each of the next four years there will be a 2% reduction in staff year-on-year, which is almost 5,000.”

Blair and his hard-nosed group of local authority employers, are hell-bent on beating the FBU into the ground before the even more difficult task of sending troops into battle. This has produced a wave of anger across the fire service. Firefighters are saying: “We might as well go for broke.”

In response to this mood at the national reps meeting last week, the FBU decided to go for more strikes including a 24-hour strike on 21 January. This will be followed by two 48-hour strikes on 28 January and 1 February.

They also plan further “guerrilla action”, including two-hour stoppages well into March. The idea is to keep the 17,000 troops fully occupied, even on the days when there are no strikes. Whether this will work remains to be seen.

The union leadership’s use of discontinuous action has put the government on the back foot. But the postponement of action, six times before Christmas, has led to confusion in the firefighters’ ranks.

Blair boasted that the troops were as good as the firefighters. This is pure propaganda and is seen as such by most workers. But it is clear that the government won’t let the initiative pass onto the FBU without fighting back. Already the Financial Times is egging the government on to lock out firefighters or to consider sacking them all. As they point out: “This is now legal as the dispute is more than eight weeks old.”

The worse thing would be for the union leaders to hope this won’t happen and not prepare for it.

The leadership should declare now that they won’t cancel any more planned strikes until the employers are prepared to make a substantially improved offer, with the complete dropping of any strings, cuts and job losses contained in the discredited Bain report.

The union must make serious moves to call for solidarity strike action from other groups of workers. This means calling on those most at risk without proper fire cover, like tube and rail workers, even if it is in defiance of the anti-union laws.

The best way to pose this is by calling for a one-day general strike of the whole trade union movement.

It is clear that the government want to smash the FBU as an effective fighting force. Blair fears that the example of a militant union will spread to others. The firefighters’ campaign is now not just about pay but about the future of the union itself. The only answer to this from all trade unions is that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Build on trade union support

THE GOVERNMENT have upped the ante in a really underhand way. They started by giving us a 4% offer with no strings attached. Now they’re offering 4% but we have to agree to Bain.

Billy Carruthers, a London firefighter

We won’t get 7% unless Bain is fully implemented and the 7% is a global figure so most people will get less.

Rather than cutting the number of people in the fire brigade, Bain should propose increasing the staff. Improving fire prevention needs more people. To prevent fires you need to educate the public, which takes time. That means more firefighters.

They talk about the terrorist threat but last year this station was going out twice a day to ‘white powder’ incidents – the anthrax scare. Our fire rescue unit, which has the equipment to deal with chemicals, was out twice a day. We didn’t have enough resources to deal with it. Now there’s the ricin poison scare.

To take people off fire engines and train them to deal with terrorist incidents, you need more firefighters. If you’re going to have a modern fire service you need more people.

They promised millions of pounds to fight terrorism after 9/11 but it’s actually coming out of existing budgets.

When we were out on the picket line for eight days we had hundreds of other trade unionists coming to give us their support. We should build on that. Somebody’s going to have to challenge the anti-trade union laws. We should call on other trade unions to support us like nurses, teachers, the bin men and everybody else who works in the public sector.

Are joint control rooms feasible?

ONE OF the cost-cutting measures proposed in the Bain report is for joint control rooms between the fire and ambulance services and the police. GEOFF ECCLESTONE, from Nottinghamshire UNISON police branch executive responds to this idea.

“NO ONE has spoken to UNISON in Nottinghamshire about this. We’ll be annoyed if this is happening without us being involved.

“The control roles are very different and the skills and knowledge demanded are very different. No one is suggesting joining up air-traffic control and the railways.

“We need to get our own control rooms right before thinking of joining them up. Modernisation of Nottinghamshire’s control rooms started three years ago and we’re still struggling to get to a level we can feel proud of.

“Our members have worked themselves into illness to make things work. Many families have suffered with the amount of overtime that has been put in. We understand stress – we have worked for years suffering under-funding and old and decrepit equipment.

“Our members have so much time off for overtime owing to them it is unlikely they will ever get to take it.

“We have every sympathy with the FBU. We expected this Labour government to put workers first and sadly we have seen little sign of this. We abhor the position that firefighters have been placed in. UNISON publicly supports them and our branch has passed a resolution in support.”

Birmingham firefighter sacked

BIRMINGHAM FIREFIGHTER Steve Godward was sacked on 2 December, for “attempting to persuade his colleagues to remove and sabotage equipment”

This accusation arises from Steve following local officers’ instructions to protect some safety-critical equipment in case stations were burgled during the strike. But a story alleging sabotage was on the front page of The Times on 15 November.

Steve has had massive support from other FBU members and members of other trade unions. His appeal hearing is on 16 January and the FBU has called a national rally outside the hearing. The West Midlands FBU have asked permission to ballot for action if Steve is not re-instated at the appeal.

One of the “modernisations” included in the Bain report is for the repeal of Section 19 of the 1947 Fire Services Act.

The effect of this would be to allow chief officers to cut jobs, stations and appliances without local consultation. This will be a green light for managers to force through their cuts agenda and attack FBU members and activists.

Steve’s case shows the importance of fighting these measures as well as fighting for a decent wage.

Modernisation is already happening

ACCORDING TO the annual reports from the Chief Inspector of Fire Services, between 1981 and 1999 emergency calls to the fire service increased by 78% from 541,140 to 965,200.

There was also a 98% increase in calls to emergencies other than fire.

During this time there was a 2.5% decrease in the number of full-time firefighters. But fire fatalities were reduced by 35%.

Because of improved techniques and faster response times, in the year 2000 firefighters attended 2% more fires than 1999 but there was a 2% decrease in fire deaths and casualties.

The FBU points out that there are actually 1,181 fewer firefighters working now than are actually required to fill the currently agreed establishment.

The Socialist demands:

  • The full £30K without strings.
  • No cuts through ‘modernisation’.
  • Build solidarity with the firefighters.
  • A one-day public-sector strike.