Last Saturday (December 7, 2002) 20,000 trade unionists marched through the
centre of London in support of the firefighters in a demonstration organised by
the TUC. There was a wide range of different unions and trades council banners
present, and there was a good mood of solidarity in spite of the bad weather.
The negotiations between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers began in the
summer and proceeded until September when the FBU balloted for strike action in
order to back up their claim for a 40% wage rise. The 40% claim was intended to
take into account the changed nature of the job and to restore decent wage
levels. Since then the FBU has gone to great lengths to gain public support.
From a programme of two two-day strikes, followed by three eight-day strikes,
they have called off one of each with one eight-day strike due to start on
Monday 16. The latest strike which, would have coincided with the demo, was
called off at the eleventh hour, after it was announced that the union and the
employers were going to the arbitration service ACAS to try to find a solution
to the dispute.
On the picket lines the firefighters have shown an excellent resolve, the
public have shown great support and this was also the case on the demo. A large
part of the demo was made up of firefighters from around the country, and there
was a great mood of confidence among them that they would get a favourable
settlement one way or another. The demo ended with a rally in Hyde Park with
many of the union big guns speaking, John Monks (TUC Gen. Sec.), John Edmonds,
(Gen. Sec. GMB), Dave Prentis (Gen. Sec. UNISON).
Andy Gilchrist (FBU Gen. Sec.) was very well received. He said of Labour’s
attacks on the fire service, "I never thought I would see a Labour
government attempt to demonise public-sector workers in this way." He added
that it was difficult to stay out of politics when the government is warning
that 10,000 Fire Service jobs could be cut.
The Blairite clique at the top of the Labour Party certainly wants to attack
the public sector, and at the moment the firefighters are in the front line. The
reason that the government have treated the firefighters so contemptuously in
the negotiations is that they want nothing less than a total defeat for the FBU.
That would allow them to cut jobs and introduce flexible working conditions at
their leisure in the Fire Service and beyond. This is why the current
negotiations at ACAS are unlikely to produce any acceptable results. The
government has angered workers with their actions in the dispute and the mood
among many FBU members has shifted away from compromise.
Hence ACAS is not a way forward for the firefighters dispute. The government
is sitting the dispute out, in spite of the fact that the army cannot provide
effective cover, and that the majority of the population support the
firefighters. The union has to turn up the heat on the government. They must
build the momentum, to broaden out and promote the strike. The excellent mood
and resolve that you see on every picket line has to be galvanised through a
series of local, regional, and national events, so that the union can proceed as
a single united force. FBU members have to feel that they are part of a powerful
national strike. That is the way to prevent any division creeping in as the
The TUC will have to play a vital role in this. It is clear that the mood
among trade unionists existed for a much larger demonstration, the short notice
and confusion surrounding the calling off of the strike notwithstanding. The
truth is that there was a lack of preparation in the regional trade union
structures. This shows that the trade union organisations in all areas of the
country must be fully mobilised in support of the firefighters.
It is clear that if the coming eight-day dispute does not have the desired
affect of forcing the government to make a sensible offer then the union and its
members will have to consider moving to all out action some time in the new
year. If they do not, the strike could drag on and on, and they could even risk
defeat if the strike continued without any perspective of victory. Now is the
time for the leadership to grab the nettle. They should not put off any more
strikes without a concrete deal on the table. The union should enter the next
round of negotiations from a position of strength. They have the majority of
public support, and the support of the whole union movement. All eyes are on the
firefighters, because they are waging a struggle for the whole movement.