FBU: Keep the pressure on the EC! No compromise, no witch-hunt!

Submitted by Anon on 12 August, 2004 - 2:53

By Nick Holden

As the dust settles from the FBU's decision last month to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, union activists continue to prepare for a possible strike over pay, with at least one hand tied behind their backs by their own union leadership.
FBU leaders have continued to seek negotiations with employers, including meeting with the TUC.

As things stand, the FBU will be balloting for industrial action in August unless the employers pay the second and third instalments of last year's pay agreement before the end of this month. The chances of that seem slim, but the record of the FBU negotiators suggests that there'll be at least one compromise "deal" announced and considered by the FBU executive before the ballot papers actually get printed.

Whether the union settles for such a compromise, or actually carries through the policy agreed at conference last month, will depend on whether the grassroots of the union can force the EC to hold firm. Last time round, it was "help" from the TUC that eventually led to the FBU leadership caving in, so the appearance of Brendan Barber at a meeting with the FBU executive this week will have worried many firefighters.

Alongside their efforts to reach a compromise settlement with employers on an issue which they'd previously declared was "non-negotiable", the leaders have turned their fire on their critics inside the FBU.

National Officer Paul Woolstenholmes, who won an election to his full-time position last year having criticised the FBU leadership for its handling of the dispute, has been suspended on a very flimsy disciplinary charge - that he might have given an FBU member details of a meeting which subsequently appeared on a website.

The idea that informing union members of the decisions taken on their behalf is something worthy of getting a union official disciplined is an illustration of all that's wrong with the FBU - and many other unions.

Not content with victimising Woolstenholmes, the FBU leadership has also suspended a number of local lay officials for their support for the rank-and-file grouping, Grassroots FBU.

Although the leading supporters of Grassroots haven't yet been touched, it's clear that some among the union leadership are feeling the pressure from below, and are resenting it.

Meanwhile, ballot papers go out this week in the West Midlands region, where the current EC member is facing a challenge from Grassroots FBU supporter John Vernon.

The tradition in the FBU of seeing EC members re-elected unopposed, over and over again, seems to be breaking down, and this sudden outburst of democracy will be helping to unsettle the FBU leadership even further.

The key task for FBU activists is to win a massive majority for action in the pay ballot next month, but to do that, the rank-and-file will also need to have an answer to the witch-hunt, and a strategy for dealing with the unresolved question from the decision at conference: now that the FBU has left the Labour Party, what will it do instead?

The temptation to give up on politics must be resisted; the lesson of the 2003 dispute suggests that now, more than ever, the FBU needs to have a political voice.

The recent formation of the Labour Representation Committee offers one possible route to keeping that voice, as does a proposal for some joint work between the FBU and the RMT, recently expelled from the Labour Party.

With further attacks on the fire service, regionalisation of control rooms, and cuts in pensions also on the cards, the FBU needs to be fighting at full strength - and that means that they can afford neither the self-destruction of the witch-hunt nor political isolation.

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