Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/279/24462
Blair Declares War On FBU
"THE GOVERNMENT has completely lost control of the agenda. This is no longer just a dispute between the FBU and the government: it has descended into a fight between the government and the whole union movement" (Observer 24 November).
This quote from John Edmonds, leader of the GMB union, accurately sums up the firefighters' dispute.
The class lines are drawn. On the one side, the firefighters and control staff, fighting for a decent living wage and to protect their jobs and working conditions. Behind the firefighters, public sector and other workers who understand that a victory for the firefighters will be a victory for low paid workers everywhere.
Pitted against them are Blair, Brown, Prescott and the New Labour government, cheered on by the bosses' club, the CBI, and the right-wing press, all determined to take on the FBU so that they can continue with their agenda of privatisation and poverty pay for public sector workers.
Chaos and blunder
Blair brought forward his monthly press conference in a desperate attempt to regain the initiative after a week of chaos and blunder. Both army and police chiefs said they wanted nothing to do with his proposal to seize the red fire engines and the chief of defence staff warned that using troops in the strike would undermine Blair's plans for war with Iraq.
Then Prescott showed his contempt for firefighters by staying in bed when a deal between the FBU and employers was in reach. He then seemed to contradict Brown by saying that the deal was "still worth talking about".
Blair's hardline intervention has hardened the mood of firefighters on the picket lines as they gear up for what could be a long, drawn out struggle.
Blair is still insisting that any pay rise over 4% must be linked to 'modernisation', which all firefighters know means less jobs, worse conditions and an inferior service for the general public.
Everything they have fought for over the past 25 years is at stake. With New Labour digging their heels in for a protracted struggle, the FBU should consider moving from discontinuous action towards all-out action to increase the pressure on the government.
It's clearly big business that is pulling New Labour's strings. Digby Jones of the CBI has called on Blair to "stand firm" and "not budge an inch". The Financial Times turned up the heat by asking "does the government govern?". "Each surrender would make resisting the next one more costly" they declared, using the language of war. "A government's monopoly over coercive power is the basis of civilised life." (25 November) They call for "proper preparations" for a long strike including the use of red engines "If that means limits on Britain's deployment of troops in a new Gulf War, so be it."
There is huge public support for the firefighters and any provocative action by New Labour could turn opinion even further against the government. However, urged on by his big business backers, it's possible that Blair could move in the direction of trying to seize the red fire engines or using the courts to ban the strikes.
"I'm disappointed that this didn't get sorted because someone on £120,000 couldn't get out of bed before 9am. And I'm angry that they won't pay us because they're frightened of paying everyone else. It's unbelievable that the same people who recommended 40% to the MPs, and they took it, recommended the same to us and the MPs said we can't have it."
Firefighter at St Mary's Station, Southampton
Police chiefs have said that they do not want their 'neutrality' to be compromised by crossing picket lines. But although individual police (who are also threatened with 'modernisation') and soldiers have sympathy with the firefighters, ultimately the army and police are not impartial, but used to defend the profits and interests of big business and the capitalist class - as clearly happened in the miners' strike of 1984-85 (see page 10).
If there is any attempt to escalate the dispute in this way, the whole of the trade union movement should be organised in support of the firefighters, including general strike action.
Blair says that this is a strike that the FBU cannot win. He claims that any rise over 4%, if not paid for by 'modernisation' will wreck the economy. But as the Financial Times bluntly put it: "The principle is not that the £200 million cost of a deal with the firefighters would cripple the public finances - it represents less than 0.05% of annual government spending. But it would set an extremely dangerous precedent".
Blair is taking on the firefighters to set an example to all public sector workers. But the firefighters can win. Solidarity action by other workers, most of whom are also facing low pay, cuts and privatisation, is the key to winning this strike (see page 6). Left union leaders such as those in the RMT, ASLEF, PCS and CWU should, together with the FBU, call a conference of shop stewards and trade union representatives to discuss how solidarity action can be organised. A victory for the firefighters will be a victory for all workers.
"All we want is to be paid a decent wage and to get back to doing the job we do well. But instead we are on a picket line. I feel awful about it but the government are determined to break our union and keep all other public sector workers' pay low.
They can afford to go to war in Iraq. They are prepared to spend millions a day to keep this strike going but they won't pay us a decent wage. It looks like being a long battle and a lean Christmas, but we have to believe that we can win."
Zoe, fire controller, Swindon
Fighting For A Living Wage
Fighting To Save The Fire Service
ANDY BRICKLES, East Midlands regional FBU chair spoke to The Socialist on 23 November:
"I THINK members are beginning to take in that it's not going to be over in a short period of time. We're in for a long haul.
"Three times the government have put their fingers in the negotiations and it's been a calamity each time. Prescott's latest actions have galvanised the members.
"They know it's not just a campaign for fair pay but to save the British fire service as we know it. We're not just going to take an increase in pay to the detriment of the service.
"Past strikes in Essex, Derbyshire and Merseyside show we're prepared to take industrial action to protect the public and the service.
"Talking to local MPs they all seem supportive of our action, but the national leadership of the Labour Party have got a different agenda, trying to prove to Middle England that they can take on a trade union."
Khalid Obadele from Euston blue watch, in central London explained what a lot of workers are feeling:
"This government is supposed to be our government. People voted Labour because they wanted real change. But Blair's just scrubbing Thatcher's name out and putting in his own. We need a political party that's our party, but this isn't it."
Andy Tate, from Hightown station, Southampton pointed out:
"If we took the same percentage wage increase as MPs have had since our last strike in 1977, we'd be on £34,500 instead of £21,531 - and that's after four years."
He went on to explain how firefighters' workload has increased since 1977: "Our attendance at incidence in Hampshire was 11,452... Since then our work rate has steadily risen. ... Our call-outs for last year were over 25,000 (25,178) and we have less stations."
He summed up what many firefighters are feeling:
"In times of need, politicians are quick enough to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to praising us for our services. But we don't want praise we just want to be paid the going rate for the job, that's all.
"Praise doesn't pay any household bills or put food on the table for my family. Unfortunately neither does my fire service wage, which is why I'm forced to work virtually all my rest days to make my money up to a liveable standard. It's quite simple, if I don't I'll lose my house.
"I work on a watch of ten firefighters and it's meant to be 13. We're short-staffed around the county. I'm not alone on my watch when I say that I may have to leave the job I love because we're paid so poorly."
Zoe, a fire controller on a Swindon picket line told Jean Walker:
"We can't accept any cuts, that's what they mean by modernisation - cuts. Even 16% is not enough, we would get 4% this year and 4% next year anyway, so that makes it 8%.
"Even if we got £30,000 you can't get a mortgage that would buy a house in Swindon for that. They want day-manned stations so we just go out from home at night if there is a fire. It's at night that most fire deaths occur. To be able to work like that you have to live in the vicinity of the station.
"At Westlea station, many of them can't afford a house in the area or anywhere else in Swindon so, as it is they sleep on the floor. It is a day-manned station so there are no beds or facilities. That's what modernisation would mean for all of us, we can't accept that because it will affect the service we can offer."
What 'modernisation' really means
BLAIR HAS underlined that any pay increase has to be linked to changes in working practices, so-called 'modernisation'. But Andy Gilchrist points out; "The only way to make savings in the fire service is cut the amount of firefighters, cut the amount of fire appliances and cut the amount of fire stations.
"Tony Blair has sent out an agenda for life-threatening cuts across the fire services. He just doesn't want to own up to it."
Noel Pine, from Tameside UNISON explains what 'modernisation' has meant in other public services: "There are parallels in direct care jobs such as residential and homecare for the elderly. There has been an enormous increase in the number of part-time jobs and a reduction or virtual elimination of full-time jobs. Workers in these areas often want full-time hours and so end up doing additional hours regularly at the employer's whim, reducing labour costs and undermining the unions."
As Andrew Price, a member of the lecturers' union NATFHE's national executive said when he sent a letter of support to the Welsh FBU: "As you may know Further Education colleges were separated from the control of local authorities a little over 10 years ago. Since this act of privatisation we as a union have fought an almost continuous war with the employers over attempts to worsen working conditions. The employers' offensive has been fought in the name of 'modernisation', a singularly hypocritical term when one sees the extent it has taken our members' working lives backwards and the adverse effect it has had on the service we offer our communities."
Many firefighters agree. A firefighter at St Mary's station in Southampton told Nick Chaffey: "Modernisation is about cuts and it's going to cost lives. Overtime means reducing the number of firefighters. They want to undermine the union and walk all over us. We've got no problem doing extra training but we want pay for what we do now."
John Hardcastle, a Sheffield firefighter sums it up: "Look at what has happened in the past... They 'modernised' the NHS, they 'moderised' the railways, they 'modernised' the education system... And they're all better than they were 25 years ago, right?"
Building support in Coventry
AROUND 200 fire fighters and supporters from Coventry's trade union movement held a lively protest on 23 November outside the city's Council House.
Mark Power, Coventry Socialist Party
Speakers from the FBU and local representatives of various unions, including the CWU and NUT addressed the rally.
Rob Windsor, speaking on behalf of Coventry's three Socialist Party councillors, said:
"Your pay claim is totally justified. You're on the front line, not only fighting for yourselves but for other public sector workers.
"When the government says other workers get paid less than you we say: any money saved by a defeat of the FBU will just go to big business, who want to privatise the fire service.
"The Socialist group will be moving a motion of support for the firefighters on the council - we're striving to represent the millions and not the millionaires."
Chris Hobbes, carrying the FBU's banner as he led a spontaneous march through Coventry's main shopping precinct, said:
"We've had a lot of support from the West Midlands trade unions.
"The public are behind us even more after the government's intervention.
"We've just got to keep fighting on until we get what we want."
What you can do now to support the firefighters
- Visit the picket lines and show your solidarity with the striking firefighters.
- Invite a firefighter to speak at a union/workplace meeting to discuss the dispute and how to organise solidarity support.
- With the strike running into Christmas, firefighters could lose £1,000 in pay. All unions should be urged to make donations to the FBU hardship funds. Collections should be made in the workplaces where the idea of more solidarity could also be raised.
- John Monks, TUC general secretary, has said that all unions should make sure that their workers feel safe at work during the strike. Under existing legislation workers do not have to work in unsafe conditions and can walk out.
- Workers can demand that their employers carry out a risk assessment in the workplace. If the employer refuses, or it is not carried out satisfactorily, then a dispute can be registered and ballots for strike action initiated.
- Trade unionists should call for the TUC to organise a national demonstration in support of the firefighters. If the TUC does not respond then the Left union leaders should come together to organise a national demo. This would serve as a warning to the government that any provocation against the FBU and its right to take strike action will be met with solidarity action from the unions.
The Socialist demands:
- The full £30k without strings
- No cuts through 'modernisation'
- Build solidarity with the firefighters
- A national demo in support of the firefighters
- A one-day public sector strike
- Support from other trade unions
- Support from other Trade Unions
THE RMT is balloting its 8,000 members on London Underground for strike action. Tube bosses will not give assurances that staff refusing to work on safety grounds will not be disciplined. The ballot result is due on 12 December. Railworkers could also be balloted.
AMICUS, which covers the nuclear power, gas, water and electricity industries, has told its members to stop work if they believe their safety has been compromised by the firefighters' strike.
UNISON GENERAL secretary, Dave Prentis has called for unions to do all they can to support the FBU: "On behalf of UNISON I would like to express solidarity with the striking firefighters and urge all our branches to offer them financial support."
UNISON has also protested about Bain's proposals to merge fire and ambulance control rooms and to expand firefighters' role into that of paramedics. They point out it takes three years to train as a paramedic, which would be impractical for firefighters to do in addition to their own training.
"Ambulance controllers aren't dispatchers like a local mini-cab service, they give telephone advice to keep the patient alive and suggest treatment. They also ensure that the ambulance crew know the facts of what the patient needs before they arrive on the scene, which could make the difference between life and death."
Lies, damn lies and government statistics
The cost of the 16% deal:
- What Blair claimed: £500 million
- What the Treasury claimed: £450 million
- The employers' estimate: £180 million
The cost of implementing the Bain report:
- Bain's estimate of cost of his recommended 11.3%: £128 million
- Ending the firefighters' overtime ban: £18 million
- New shift system: £4 million
- Other aspects of Bain's proposals, including management training: £60 million
Total costs, known so far, of Bain: £210 million (£30 million more than the 16% deal)
But the firefighters deserve their full claim. That would cost around £450 million. That's just 0.1% of annual government spending.
The cost of fire, flood and road accidents is between £23 billion and £26 billion per year.
Overwhelming public support
CLIVE PROTHEROE, Secretary, FBU South Wales explained why practical support from the public and other trade unions is essential:
"Because of the way firefighters are paid, the strike will start to bite in January. That's when they'll take the whole lot out of our pay for the time we've been on strike. We're starting to raise money now to cover that time."
But Dave, Steve and others on the Cardiff Central picket line gave an idea of the massive public support for the firefighters:
"Everyone will remember the woman in Newtown in Mid Wales who was the first person to die during the dispute. Her family asked the firefighters of Newtown firestation to provide the pall bearers at her funeral.
"We've had pensioners pulling up on the forecourt and donating food, money, drink, whatever we want - even taking orders for takeaway meals. Someone came down on Friday night and asked how many were on the picket line. We said 16 - then half an hour later they came back with 16 orders of chicken and chips.
"We even had a squaddie come up to us on Saturday morning and say: 'Well done. You're keeping us from going to the Middle East'. We gave him a T-Shirt."
In the east midlands the FBU regional secretary reported that at one picket line a women brought down ten cooked Sunday dinners (beef - even including the horseradish sauce).
Steve Brinkley, chair of Ipswich FBU agreed about public support: "It's been phenomenal. Better than last time. If the government are trying to get an anti-FBU response they've blown it!
Residents near one Ipswich firestation have been complaining about the hooting that has been continuous - even through the night. They are asking motorists to find other ways of showing their support. They said they could cope for 48 hours but not eight days!
BACK IN the 1980s Thatcher claimed to have won the hearts and minds of working-class Tories. Standing on the picket line at Chelsea fire station it appears that the bourgeoisie have responded by embracing trade union militancy.
Looking down the pages of signatures on petitions supporting the FBU action I saw some of the most exclusive addresses in Chelsea, Kensington and Belgravia!
Meet Mr "Me, Me"
WHAT A nerve! Digby Jones, £310,000 a year director-general of the bosses' Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the firefighters were "still talking the ideology and working practices and 'me, me' attitude of another age."
You'd never guess from this po-faced claim that Jones' CBI members include the country's greediest, most cream-guzzling fat cats.
Top drug group GlaxoSmithKline were offering their chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier, a near £20 million a year pay package. The £7 million a year he earned last year wasn't enough, despite Glaxo's profits dropping from £6 billion to £4.5 billion.
Directors of stock exchange companies earning over £500,000 a year had average pay rises of 16.1% last year. That's eight years running that they've had pay rises in double figures.
Over the last five years, the chief executives of companies in the FTSE 100 put their pay up by 89% on average. 130 company directors got paid over £1 million a year. Workers' wages however, grew on average only by 3.4% in 2001.
The CBI say that firefighters shouldn't be paid more because there are people queuing up to join the fire service. Strangely enough, when it comes to their own pay, executives say they should get big increases every year because of a 'healthy' international market for top executives ie loads of people queuing up for their jobs!
Who's "Me, Me" Mr Jones? Take a look in the mirror.
Where's the money coming from? The rich!
THE GOVERNMENT aren't saving any money by opposing the firefighters' strike. Blair and Co. have spent a small fortune on training 19,000 troops to provide emergency cover during the strike. Channel 4 News put the cost of the strike at £5 million a day.
But firefighters and their supporters will still be asked: "A full settlement would cost around £450 million. Where's the money going to come from to pay this claim?"
For a start, how about making the rich pay their tax? Rupert Murdoch, head of the multi-billion News Corporation, has just been voted Britain's "greatest living businessman" by a panel including New Labour trade secretary Patricia Hewitt and CBI director-general Digby Jones.
News Corporation paid only £128 million in corporate taxes worldwide from 1995 to 1999 - that's just 6% of the £2.1 billion profits his company made in one year!
CBI boss Digby Jones thinks New Labour are too fond of corporate taxation. But over the last year the government has cut corporation tax on profits and capital gains so much that they have given back some £11.6 billion to big business!
Revenues from corporation tax declined from around £17.4 billion in 2000 to around £5.8 billion in 2001. Just bringing corporation tax back up to the already low pre-2001 level of 33% would easily pay the firefighters' and other wage claims.
Under New Labour most middle-income earners are now paying the same rate of taxation as the richest in society. We say, make the rich pay for a change.
In The Socialist 29 November 2002: