By Jill Mountford
At a recall conference in Brighton on 15 April, Fire Brigades Union delegates overwhelmingly rejected a pay deal that had initially been recommended by their union leadership.
Brigades from all over Britain sent a clear message to FBU leader Andy Gilchrist that they will not accept a pay deal that has 'modernisation' strings attached.
If it comes to it, the left in the union feels it would be better to have deputy Prime Minister John Prescott carry through his threat of imposing a deal. That would create a chance to broaden out the dispute to the wider trade union movement again, and possibly give it renewed confidence and strength. Better go for that chance than give up the fight and accept a deal that will mean a loss in negotiating power for the national union and significant losses in conditions for firefighters and service to the public.
The struggle is, however, for now, still in a lull, because the conference voted by 31,859 to 15,829 to send every union member a copy of proposals put by Professor Frank Burchill, independent chair of the National Joint Council, with a letter from the Executive supporting the proposals.
FBU branches will be meeting and reporting their views to a meeting of the union's Executive in the week starting 12 May.
According to the Executive, if the employers do not make a revised offer along the lines of Burchill's proposals, the union will set a further set of strike dates. FBU leaders have however also said that they will set no strike dates until the Iraq war is over - meaning, until all British troops are home from the Gulf. That could be months away. Many members see this postponement as a cynical ploy by the leadership to create a mood of despondency among the rank and file.
It is rumoured among the FBU left that Burchill, professor of Industrial Relations at Keele University, is close to the FBU leadership and is bidding on their behalf. As with the existing employers' offer, Burchill calls for 16% pay rise over three years, but no guarantee of anything above 4% unless all the 'modernisation' strings are implemented.
As to what 'modernisation' means in terms of firefighters' loss of conditions and control over the job, Burchill has tinkered with the detail and sugar-coated the bitter pill, but, according to FBU London Regional Organiser Matt Wrack, the proposals are - nothing more than the employers' offer we have just rejected, simply reworded".
The employers, who clearly feel that they have the upper hand, have already rejected Burchill's proposals, saying that they would not create sufficient "savings" from cuts and changes to pay for the wage rise. The FBU leadership's great hope is that some apparent or minor improvements on Burchill's line will get them off the hook they are stuck on. However, there is little obvious reason for the employers to help the union leaders out by getting round the table to discuss Burchill. They could equally choose to sit back and wait and see if the whole dispute falls apart.
Matt Wrack says: "Activists who oppose Burchill need to organise an opposition. We need to discuss the implications among the membership. Once they know the detail, Burchill will be rejected too.
"Then, clearly, the next step is to set some new strike dates to show the employers that we are still prepared to fight for a decent pay settlement."
The dispute is not over. Trade union and labour movement activists have to be prepared to build solidarity as and when the strikes start up again.
Over the last seven months there have been too many fits and starts in the pay campaign for members to want further delay. If the mood among the left at the 15 April conference is anything to go by, then FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist and his allies on the Executive will not have everything their own way. The conference's rejection of the employers' offer may be followed up by the branches rejecting the Burchill proposal.
As one angry delegate put it: "We have to make demands on our own leadership not to sell out the dispute. Once it is over, no matter how it is settled, we have to examine how the whole affair has been conducted. For many of us around the country it has been a lot less than satisfactory. We have to learn some lessons."