Build for Industrial Solidarity with the Firefighters

Submitted by AWL on 3 December, 2002 - 3:04

An open letter to John Monks from Billy Carruthers, Station Commander and FBU member, Euston fire station, London


I welcome your recent statement where you said, and rightly so, that this is a "seminal" dispute. You, like most trade unionists, are absolutely appalled by the Government's attitude.
The question is, as the leader of the TUC, what do you propose to do about it?

Everyone can see what the Government is up to now. Prescott has let the cat out of the bag - telling Parliament that by "modernisation" the Government means cutting the numbers of fire fighters by up to 20%. We are serious about a fair settlement. They are playing with people's lives.

This is a knock-down and drag-out fight. That is what Blair says. And that is what the whole labour movement must say. We need the weight of the labour movement to be brought to bear down on Blair and the New Labour Government.
The question is what can you and the trade union movement do next? At the FBU conference back in May, you, as General Secretary of the TUC, spoke and gave your full support to our pay claim. Now we need you to come down firmly on the side of the firefighters not only in words but where it really counts. in deeds.

Will you help mobilise trade unionists to back the firefighters and to put forward their own claims, making the maximum united impact? The current eight day strike is hardening the attitude of firefighters. Things will really start to heat up now.

After eight days on strike, every firefighter will understand that this is no longer just a dispute about pay. Every firefighter will know it is a political dispute to keep down public sector pay. As the dispute goes on, people will fast become politicised. That is what strikes like this do to people.

We have won the moral argument. We have got public support and right on our side. We have shown the employers how the settlement can be financed. It is only a beginning.

We are not the ones putting the public at risk. The Government is. We are simply asking for a decent living wage and doing the only thing left us - withdrawing our labour.

Threats to break the strike by sending troops over the picket lines may backfire. We have got no animosity towards the troops.

We have spoken to some soldiers in their barracks, and we let them know that our dispute is not with them. We are concerned that they are putting their own lives at risk because they don't have the experience and training for doing the work we do. The troops are trained to do something very different.

Other trade unionists have an important role to play. The Tory anti-union laws which Blair has kept on the statute book make solidarity action illegal. But genuine concern with safety in the workplace is still - just about - legal and has to be paramount.

That means every trade unionist should make regular safety checks and put as much pressure as possible on their employers to stop work in unsafe environments and areas.
This is not illegal secondary action. It is about safety in the workplace. Everyone has a responsibility here.

While firefighters are on strike, trade unionists should make sure that fire exits are not blocked - that they are accessible and easy to open - that lifts are not used in fire situations, and that everyone is aware of evacuation procedures. This is central to our strike being successful. We want the public, fellow workers, to be as safe as possible.
We call on all trade union members to support and help us in achieving this.
While we take no responsibility for the consequences of the strike action that has been forced on us - it lies squarely at the feet of Blair and his Government - we are, as always, totally committed to public safety.

We will make links between the different struggles that are taking place. When school teachers marched in London on 26 November, on their day of strike action about pay, firefighters joined them.

We know that our struggle for decent pay is their struggle for decent pay. We don't deserve more pay than nurses, paramedics, or the guy who empties the bins. We all deserve decent pay.

The job of the TUC and you yourself, John Monks, must be to help organise and build support for all these struggles - and here and now for the firefighters.

This Government has been a Government of the rich by the rich for the rich for five and half years. It has had an astonishingly easy ride. The labour movement has not fought back. For too long there has been a cosy, comfortable relationship between many trade unions and Tony Blair.

There has been no campaign by the TUC and yourself against the fact that the "Labour" Government has kept the anti-union laws on the statute books. But, as you came very close to saying, we have now reached a crossroads.

Their viciously hostile attitude to the firefighters' claim shows the Government for what it is. A polarisation is taking place - for and against the firefighters, for and against the labour movement. People are taking sides.

Mobilised strength will decide.

You are right, as I've said, that this is a seminal dispute. We want you and the TUC to help us win.

Counter the dirty anti-working-class propaganda of the Government!

Tell workers throughout industry that they will be justified in putting safety first!

Put the whole machinery of the TUC into the job of expanding and building the local FBU support committees, already established in most areas by Trades Councils and other trade-union bodies.

Tell the Government that if they use the courts to try to outlaw the firefighters' strikes, or use police or troops to break the picket lines, then they will face a general mobilisation of the trade union movement.

Take a lead from our comrades over the channel, who are not afraid to say that they support decent public sector pay.

Yours fraternally,

Billy Carruthers, Station Cmdr and FBU member, Euston, London

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