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Preparing for more battles over jobs and services
FBU general secretary speaks to The Socialist
Matt Wrack, FBU General secretary, speaks at Socialism 2005, photo Paul Mattsson
Greg Maughan interviews Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary - another public sector union facing cuts to jobs and services in the coming months.
How has the FBU changed since you were elected in 2005?
In 2005 the union was coming out of the bitter 2002/3 pay dispute. That unleashed a big wave of change in the fire service. It was called 'modernisation' but in reality it is attacks on working conditions, shifts and jobs. So those five years have seen defensive struggles.
But they haven't been able to beat us. After 2003 a lot of politicians and chief fire officers thought that they'd be able to fragment the FBU. Now we're rebuilding with new layers of officials and activists.
What about the recent struggles, like in South Yorkshire?
We've had almost a year of industrial action of one form or another in South Yorkshire. There the employer effectively threatened to dismiss all our shift-based members and re-employ them on new contracts. That has never been seen in the fire service before. It's a key battle but I think we'll fight them off.
They thought they could get away with those cuts without having a fight but our members proved them wrong. It was particularly encouraging seeing new younger members getting involved on the picket lines and showing great determination and spirit.
We've also got battles over cuts in Essex, Merseyside and London. And we have a struggle nationally around pay. As in other industries, pay is facing a squeeze under the current economic conditions.
What do you think the potential is for linking up with other public sector unions in the face of those cuts?
We're involved in a trade union co-ordinating group (TUCG), involving a number of unions primarily on the left - including RMT, PCS, POA, and NUJ. We want to support each other and raise wider political issues - trade union rights, public service investment and so on.
The first conference of the TUCG is in March. It's early days yet but it has the potential to be a focus for organising against these attacks.
The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004. How do you see the question of political representation for trade unionists and working class people?
The FBU had been debating that issue for a number of years before 2004. We'd had a number of industrial battles over cuts and attacks, primarily against Labour controlled fire authorities. So there was a lot of anger about that.
The union had previously agreed a strategy of supporting candidates and politicians who supported the union's policies and principles, regardless of whether they were Labour Party candidates or not.
The big turning point was the national strike, where some of the comments that leading Labour politicians made and the attacks of the Labour government shocked a lot of members.
2004 was the first opportunity to debate it at conference. The then leadership's view was that nothing should be done to endanger the affiliation. The conference reacted to that and voted to disaffiliate.
What happens next? There are no easy or short term answers. I think it's one of discussing through the movement and with those on the left, trying to identify campaigns, in my view not necessarily always electoral campaigns, around which people can unite.
You spoke at the Youth Fight for Jobs demonstration in November. What sort of role can campaigns like that play in the current climate?
Unemployment is an absolute scandal and one which the trade union movement has to take up. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a previous period of mass unemployment. I saw its effects. We have to fight as hard as possible to resist that sort of devastation. Campaigns that challenge the government's policies and job cuts are essential.
The key battle is how to create unity amongst those campaigns and get the labour movement to take up those issues seriously.
I was at the FBU conference last year and I was really impressed with the number of young activists. In the PCS they have a young members' network and the RMT has got one. Is there a similar kind of network in the FBU?
We don't have a young members' network but we do encourage young members to participate, primarily through education. We have a very good, long-established education system that deals with industrial issues, political issues and theory.
But I think a young members' network could be considered. The union is currently considering all its structures so that may be something that emerges out of that.
When a battle starts in the trade union movement, young people are at the forefront of it and absolutely crucial to it - that has been proved again in some of our recent disputes.
In The Socialist 3 March 2010:
Youth fight for jobs
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
The Socialist Interview
Socialist Party women
Socialist Party feature