Back the firefighters!

Submitted by on 19 November, 2002 - 2:36

Prime Minister Tony Blair is feeling tough and spoiling for a fight. Not content with helping US President George W Bush plan a war in Iraq, he has forced the firefighters into their first strike in 25 years.

Blair and his ministers have meddled in the firefighters' pay dispute from early on. Back in July they stopped the employers offering 16%. Then, despite the firefighters' opposition, they set up a so-called "independent" review of the fire service. It was headed by Sir George Bain, who had helped the Government set the minimum wage at poverty levels through the Low Pay Commission, with two other "independent" Sirs in tow.

For several days Blair has been bleating about the impending menace of terrorist attacks, thus preparing for two wars, one on the home front against the firefighters and one abroad, in Iraq. He got Bain to deliver his review weeks early, retitled as a "position paper".

Bain proposed an 11% rise for the firefighters over two years with drastic changes in work conditions. The Treasury told the fire service employers that no extra money would be available, not a single penny, for any improvement on that. The Government thus scuppered any serious talks between the Fire Brigades Union and the employers.

Blair wants to make this dispute a showcase of how New Labour can take on the unions and win. He wants to cut short the trade-union revival. He can see a chain of pay demands emerging in the public services, and he fears the firefighters' claim, not because of its immediate cost - a tiny amount in the total Government budget - but because of the encouragement it will give to other workers.

He wants to show that he can manage capitalism as well as any Tory leader of the past. Probably he shared, until recently, the illusion that strikes had become "out of date". He thinks that he can keep them that way.

Blair has declared war on the FBU. He has put lives at risk in order to bash the unions. He will use any means available to win. The armed forces are being mobilised. The police will scab-herd and act as thugs on picket lines and demonstrations if they are ordered to. The billionaire press has already swung behind Blair's war at home, demonising the firefighters and calling their union leaders barmy and irresponsible.

On Tuesday 12th, the Financial Times, a sober and thoughtful newspaper of the capitalist class, advised the Government to give the firefighters an ultimatum: accept what they're offered, or be sacked en masse. For some weeks already Government ministers have been repeating that there are forty applicants for every vacant firefighter post. Perhaps because lots of people want to do a job which they can see as worthwhile and helping others, despite the low pay? Such motives are outside the New Labourites' understanding. Their message is: if you don't want to work as a firefighter for low pay and poor conditions, we can find plenty of others who do.

Blair has the weight of the state machine behind him. He has anti-union laws that ban solidarity action. The media will back him. Even so, he will not automatically win. The working class is the majority. Despite years of defeats, there are seven million of us in trade unions. We have a collective strength we have not used for years.

It is now the job of socialists and trade unionists everywhere to support the firefighters. We have to throw our full collective weight behind the struggle, and link up other disputes with it.

It is nearly 18 years since Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher smashed the miners, blighting the lives of generations in the pit communities and sapping the confidence of the organised working class. The 1984-5 miners' strike was lost through lack of solidarity and support from the leadership of the labour and trade union movement. We have to learn the lessons - learn them fast, learn them now.

In most cities FBU support committees have now been set up, sponsored by Trades Councils or similar bodies. These need to be vastly expanded so that they can develop an everyday campaigning presence on every high street, in every workplace. They should receive official support from every trade union.

We should apply pressure to the leaders of our unions, calling on them to support the firefighters unequivocally and actively and to link other disputes with the firefighters'. We should insist that they demand that the Government back down and authorise a reasonable and serious offer to the FBU.

We should call on left Labour MPs to come out actively for the FBU; on the TUC, to break from its traditional snivelling role of mediator and instead back the firefighters actively, not just in words.

Every socialist should get down to the FBU picket lines, ask what support they can give, go back to their own workplace and organise solidarity. Every trade unionist should demand to review the employer's Fire Certificate in their workplace and to have the employer work out a new fire risk assessment. Trade unionists should refuse to operate workplaces where fire risks are high, like the London Underground, without proper fire cover. Elsewhere we can and should insist on extra precautions - the employment of extra fire wardens, stopping work on higher floors of multi-storey buildings, stopping the use of lifts while there is no proper fire service, mandating full evacuations of large buildings on even partial fire alarms.

Not long ago the Government gave MPs a 40 per cent rise on their already hefty salaries. When Blair says that "we" have to resist excessive pay claims, he means that the Government and the bosses have to resist workers getting a sufficient pay rise to reach a decent living wage. He never means resistance to the excessive claims of the fat cats, the top managers, company directors and shareholders.

How can the demands of the firefighters and other public service workers be met? Make the rich and big business pay through taxation. Redistribute the wealth produced in society back to the workers, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, the firefighters, teachers, dinner ladies and road sweepers. We are all worth it.

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