Almost a year after firefighters tabled their claim for a pay rise to
£30,000 a year, new strikes are being prepared because of the intransigence of
the employers and a Labour government hellbent on attacking public services. A
meeting in Brighton of 250 delegates from all 58 brigades on April 15 voted
overwhelmingly to turn down a package which the union’s executive had originally
recommended back in March. So much by the way for the media claim that the
firefighters were being led by the nose by the union’s leaders. In reality the
leadership is being pushed in a more militant direction by the mood of ordinary
The deal on the table amounted to nothing new, just the same old offer of 16%
over three years paid for by the cost-cutting, service-wrecking Bain proposals.
These shameful proposals have now been rejected time and again by firefighters.
The union had taken a decision to halt strike action while the war in Iraq
continued. Fearing further inevitable attacks in the media, the delay in taking
more action has dangers too. In any case that war is now over, and the continued
deployment of large numbers of British troops in occupying Iraq must not be used
as an excuse to delay action any further.
Prescott’s threat to impose a settlement is still on the table. That threat,
tantamount to an attempt to ban strikes in the fire service by the backdoor,
must be dealt with. The firefighters continue to enjoy massive public support,
but there is clearly a danger of confusion being sown in the ranks not just of
workers generally but even of the firefighters themselves by long delays, and
now by talk of compromise on the basis of Burchill’s proposals. Under a proposal
tabled last month by Frank Burchill, independent chairman of the fire service’s
negotiating machinery, and since adopted by the FBU executive, wages would still
go up 16% in three phases (against the FBU claim for a one-off 40% rise), but
unlike Bain’s proposals, this deal would require agreement before shifts or
crewing levels were changed. The threat to make such cuts remains however. After
a lengthy delay, and with no clear way forward on offer, many firefighters see
this as a potential starting point for reaching an all-round acceptable
The two-to-one vote in favour of this proposal from the Executive,
representing 31,859 firefighters in favour and 15,829 against, underlined the
danger of confusion after seven months of conflict. Greater Manchester delegate
Alan Anderson said before the special conference: "My general feeling is
one of despondency. I just feel that we are coming to the end of the road and I
do not think it is a very satisfactory conclusion."
At the same time the mood of a large number of firefighters is now for
calling all out action. A clearly worked out timetable for strike action and
appeals to other workers in transport, power etc, for solidarity action would
soon bring the employers to the negotiating table. It could also place the just
claim for £30K back on the agenda.
The FBU leaders need to rally the membership with a plan to take their
struggle forward. That can include proposals for negotiations, but must be based
on renewed strike action.
Despite the earlier unequivocal support declared by the TUC general council
for the firefighters they have done almost nothing in practice. Once again they
see their role as referees in the dispute trying to convince both sides to reach
a compromise. According to The Guardian, "Mr Gilchrist is expected to seek
a further meeting with Mr Prescott and the employers, with the TUC general
secretary-elect, Brendan Barber, again helping seek middle ground.
‘We will be pursuing the Burchill proposals in the hope of discussing them
and turning them into a revised offer,’ a union source said."
Marxists are not opposed to negotiations, and maybe the Burchill proposals
could be "turned into a revised offer" (although 16% over three years
falls unacceptably short of the original claim of £30,000 a year). However
negotiations should be conducted from a position of strength. The only thing
that can force the employers and above all the Blair government to negotiate
seriously – i.e. to make the compromises they are always demanding of the
firefighters – will be militant action.
For the full £30k!
No to cost cutting, no job losses, no attacks on hours and conditions!
For all out action!