Firefighters' dispute: Discussion from Solidarity

Submitted by on 19 November, 2002 - 2:41
  • Why students should back the firefighters
    By Faz Velmi
  • Solidarity!
    Support Group news
  • On the Tube
  • Why we back the FBU
    • Take on the Government -
      Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary
    • Is the government mad? -
      Maria Exall, CWU Executive
    • Every trade union must support the fire fighters - John Leach, RMT rep and Secretary of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation
      from the picket line
    • Fire fighters and emergency cover
      By Alison Brown, ambulance worker
  • Firefighters speak out

Why students should back the firefighters
By Faz Velmi

Just as the FBU strike is providing an impetus to other working-class struggles and setting a new standard for labour movement leaders to live up to, it is also posing big questions in the student movement. Will student unions and student activists do their bit to ensure a swift and decisive victory for the firefighters?

During the 1984-5 miners' strike, student support groups played a vital role in increasing awareness, raising funds and providing physical solidarity by taking coach-loads of students to NUM picket-lines. Students were central to groups such as Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and helped link the strike to broader issues such as women's rights, anti-racism and nuclear disarmament.

But with the miners' defeat and the drift of the labour and student movements to the right, this tradition of solidarity has largely been lost, even when student unions still pay lip service to working with the trade union movement.

With the revival of the labour movement and the initiation of what has been described as the most important industrial dispute since the miners' strike, now is the time to change that. Students know from experience that the government's claim that it "cannot afford" to pay the firefighters is hypocritical nonsense.

This is the same government that has introduced tuition fees, abolished student grants and introduced cuts and privatisation into all areas of education and the welfare state. The money is there for 40% for the firefighters, free education and a lot more besides - if only the government would take it by taxing business and the rich!

And that is the whole point. A victory for the firefighters will not only mean better pay for one particular group of workers, but a better environment for every struggle for equality, public provision and social justice. As students, as future workers and as human beings, we have every reason to support the FBU and should do our utmost to help it win.

  • Visit your local fire station to let FBU members know that they have support from local students.
  • Set up a campus support group to raise money for and organise solidarity with the strike.
  • Put a motion to your student union to support the firefighters.
  • Approach campus trade unions about working together to support the firefighters. If no joint student-trade union committee exists in your college, why not take this opportunity to set one up? Education unions including AUT, NATFHE and UNISON are currently in dispute with the government over pay - linking their disputes to the FBU's will make all of us stronger.

Contact the SCF for Support the Firefighters petitions, stickers, model motions, advice and much more.

Support Group news

Firefighters' Support Groups are being set up everywhere. Send us news of what you are doing and details of meetings and we will publish them. A few first examples:

Lewisham Firefighters Support Committee has been in existence for a fortnight now. In that time it has brought together workers from both the public and private sectors to offer practical solidarity to the firefighters in their dispute.

A Notts support group has been set up for several weeks and solidarity will be shown to the Notts FBU as they leave their stations on Wednesday evening. A campaign meeting will take place on Thursday evening and most local public sector unions will be represented to thrash out a way forward. Collections and rallies are planned and a schedule of activities will be fixed at that meeting.

Battersea and Wandsworth group meets next on Tuesday 19 November, 7.30pm at LARA, St Johns Hill, Battersea, London. Ring Aide or Geoff 0208 682 3663.

On the Tube

The Fire Brigade is called out about eight times a day to the London Underground, about twice a day to actual fires. For many of these incidents the troops and Green Goddesses will lack equipment or training to deal with them properly.

The RMT and ASLEF union had offices have sent out circulars to their members explaining how they can refuse to work on grounds of inadequate safety during FBU strikes. They indicate that the unions will back them in refusal.
Widespread refusal to work will amount to effective and powerful solidarity with the fire fighters, greatly magnifying the impact of their action.

Union reps need to ensure that the work is done now get workers prepared with the arguments, so that they can refuse to work on safety grounds.

Why we back the FBU

Take on the Government

Mark Serwotka, PCS General Secretary

"Going to a meeting of the TUC General Council recently was very instructive. We were discussing the firefighters' dispute. John Monks opened the meeting saying this was the most important General Council meeting in his entire time in office. He said it was vital that the TUC supported the firefighters. But he also said that 'things were very difficult'. And the Unison member said that it was our job to support the firefighters - but without attacking the Government. How can you not attack the Government when it is behaving like this!"

Is the government mad?

Maria Exall, CWU Executive
"Fire fighters and control staff deserve £30,000 - they are worth it. The Bain Review is an insult to all public sector workers. Is this Government mad? All trade unionists, socialists and Labour Party members should support the FBU."

Unite behind the FBU
John McDonnell MP

"The government has clearly blocked the resolution this dispute. Elements within New Labour seem hell bent on having a head on confrontation with the fire-fighters, instead of allowing the employers to come to a reasonable settlement that rewards these highly valued public service workers with a professional rate of pay for the professional and highly dangerous job they do. It is outrageous that the report was leaked before the offer was even made. No-one can seriously expect the FBU to consider such an insulting proposal. There can be only one reason that an offer of this sort has been put: to provoke a strike. All Labour MPs and trade unionists must now unite to support the FBU."
A fight for the entire movement

John Leach, RMT rep and Secretary of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation

"Every trade union must support the fire fighters in whatever way they can. This should be and will be a fight for the entire labour movement."

from the picket line
"Come and support us. We need union branches to get FBU speakers to their meetings. We need workers to refuse to work on grounds of safety, if they haven't got adequate fire cover. We need to get over to the public how important the fire service is."
Les Reid, East London Group Secretary, at the Whitechapel Fire Station where all four watches are out. 13 November.

"I've been an apprentice for five years. That is longer than it takes to get a degree, and I still don't get a professional wage."
Striker on the Moss Side picket line, 13 November, where everyone thinks the firefighters are going to be out for a long time.

Fire fighters and emergency cover

By Alison Brown, ambulance worker

During their last dispute, 25 years ago, firefighters in some areas took the decision, at a rank and file level, to go out to certain emergency calls. This level of emergency cover was provided, not in any way to undermine the strike action, but because firefighters have a commitment to saving the lives. I think they were right to provide this limited cover and I think that once again, labour movement activists should discuss how this can be done.

Firefighters provide a crucial service in many emergency situations. Their work is at all times highly skilled and dangerous. However, from my experience of working alongside firefighters on emergency calls, I know that there are particular situations - most obviously in serious road traffic accidents and certain fires - where the work the firefighters do is literally life (or limb) saving. Emergency workers may be able to work together as union members to respond at this point, with for example ambulance crews contacting FBU reps to ask for assistance. We would do this in life saving situations only - under the control and priorities of working class people - not in conjunction with our management or to save property that the insurance companies and bosses have at the top of their list.

The government is trying to intimidate fire fighters by accusing them of irresponsibility. The FBU is right to stand up to this barrage of hypocrisy. Emergency service workers know best that the government cares more about their targets and budgets than about life.

There are two simple things the government could do to avoid reduction of emergency cover. Firstly, pay the firefighters a decent wage for the job they do; and secondly, abolish the anti trade union laws so that other workers could take action in solidarity with the FBU. If any lives are lost it will be the fault of the government and the employers. But, to avoid this, in the here and now, we should discuss if it is possible to provide emergency cover as part of the dispute. I'd be interested in the views of other activists on this.

Firefighters speak out
Basic trade union rights are at stake

Neil Thompson - FBU Merseyside and Cheshire
It's the full force of the Blair government pushing us to strike action. Firefighters are demonised as being Scargillite. Yet we have been nothing but reasonable, particularly the past few weeks, examining every which way to resolve this dispute, without taking strike action - we've called off three strike dates.

Nine out of ten firefighters are not militants or extremists, but we're now very determined to win our fight for a just wage - for us and our families. We're the ones who risk our lives and our health to keep the community safe. We have a legal mandate to strike and it's our very last resort. We're taking strike action in the run up to Christmas and this is a big sacrifice for our families. But they're backing us. We've been forced to chose between the community we care for and our families' right to a decent income.
The Government are going to get dirty about this strike and the labour movement and the TUC are going to have consider all sorts of things not yet on the agenda. If Blair introduces emergency measures to stop our strike action, the question of basic trade union rights will be raised once again. Everyone in the labour movement should think about what this will mean.

Government scuppered talks
Jim Quinn - Belfast FBU
George Bain's report is weeks earlier than the Government claimed was possible. Early enough to scupper talks between our leaders in the FBU and the employers. Now the employers are no longer prepared to enter into meaningful discussion with us. We believe the Blair Government and the employers have duped us. Blair is particularly concerned to divert attention away from the war against Iraq, taking the Government off the front pages of the papers and making the firefighters the headlines. All weekend firefighters were anticipating leaked documents to the papers demonising the firefighters. We're ordinary workers doing important work for society and we just want a decent wage for ourselves and our families.
The FBU has done all it can to avoid industrial action. We've entered into talks right to the eleventh hour. The Bain review was never going to recognise firefighters worth. Bain's proposals are rich coming from a Professor of Industrial Relations who got an average pay rise of 9.3% last year. Support for the firefighters in Belfast is heartening. The community here recognise the work we've put in over the last thirty years and support us in our claim.

It's all about solidarity
Steve Godward - firefighter, West Midlands and Vice Chair of the Socialist Alliance

We've said it before - enough is enough. It's about time we stood up to the abuse we've been getting. Now we're out on strike. We have a 9 to 1 mandate in favour of strike action for a pay rise.

The public support our claim and low paid workers everywhere are looking to this struggle. The firefighters must win this dispute.
You can't support the firefighters and be uncritical of the role the government is playing in this battle. After all, who is it who pushed George Bain to come up with the goods earlier than planned and the day before the FBU went back into negotiations? Who is it who's been making propaganda over the last few days about a serious terrorist threat. It's the Government.
George Bain's Inquiry is not independent, and the government are not independent.

For the past five years the Labour Government has moved further and further away from the working class and further towards the bosses, the rich and the traditional Tory voter. The first casualty of every war is the truth and this war is going to be no different. Blair is out to brand us as wreckers and troublemakers. But this doesn't sit well with the work we do 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

The labour movement has a history that is rich in skills, knowledge and lessons. We must relearn the lessons fast; we must act together, recognising that support for our dispute now can pay dividends for other workers in the future. We need support groups setting up along the lines of the miners' support groups in the mid-80s and the Women on the Waterfront who played a central role in the Liverpool dockers' dispute in the 90s. We need to link up with other workers who are taking strike action for decent pay over the coming weeks, Natfhe, the AUT, fire officers at airports, public sector workers everywhere.

And there's a role for the TUC: they have resources and experience. They should throw their full weight behind the firefighters. We need the so-called awkward squad of trade union leaders to push for the TUC to play the best possible role in supporting us and not the Labour Government.

Immediately everyone should go down to the picket lines at their local fire stations, organise collections in workplaces, invite an FBU speaker to your union meeting. Don't let the Murdoch press and his mates win the war of words. We need all the labour movement papers behind us, making the arguments loud and clear. £30k because we all deserve a decent wage!

If they're serious about modernisation and want more women in the service, then make sure all firestations have shower rooms for women, that the rotas remain the same and that firefighters get a decent wage. Everything else is just tokenism. It is not firefighters who keep ethnic minorities out of the fire service. Talk to the employers about that. We welcome everyone into the profession and we want everyone to have a decent wage.

It's all about pay, and it's all about workers solidarity, stupid!
Bain is a sham

Jane Clarke FBU Bedfordshire
There will be a 48 hour picket, round the clock, at fire stations in Bedfordshire. We are determined to get a better settlement to our pay claim than Blair and his lackey George Bain have so far offered. The Government have intervened and interfered all through this dispute over pay.
Bain's proposals will not get more women into the fire service. Changing the shift pattern in conjunction with having to work overtime in order to make a decent living can hardly be described as family friendly or at all reasonable.
It's insulting to think that a comprehensive and useful report on the future development of the fire service can be researched and written in five or six weeks, after a few short visits to half a dozen fire stations. Bain seems to have taken every report that's ever been written and mashed them all together. It's full of incoherent and contradictory ideas. An absolute insult.
Over the coming weeks the firefighters will be going out to other workers, to talk to them about the issues and get their support for the strike. At the same time we invite workers from other trade unions down to our picket lines.
The Government are holding the firefighters to ransom. Britain has excellent fire fighters, committed their jobs and dedicated to the safety of the community. Yet over the coming weeks untrained soldiers, driving 50 year old vehicles lacking all the modern equipment needed to ensure better safety, alongside the police, who only have a couple days training in controlling the switchboards, will put everybody's safety at risk. We're simply asking for a living wage, nothing like the salaries they earn, yet somehow, they claim we're the irresponsible ones.
You make your own mind up.

Interviews by Jill Mountford

We need public support
Gary Thorogood, FBU, Group Secretary (responsible for eight stations in the South East of London)

People are disappointed with the employers offer. Even moderates in the union, those who maybe didn't vote for strike action think they are taking the piss. Talking to people on the floor no-one now thinks the strike is wrong. The critical issue is public support, we want as many people as possible to get down to their stations to show their solidarity and talk to the firefighters to counter the lies they are hearing on the news.

Karl Haider, Group Secretary, Eastern Group 5 (London)
"We have offered the olive branch, and the employers have taken the olive tree. With regret, we have to take strike action. We do not do this lightly, because our friends and families are also the public. But at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words, and we've got to do what we've got to do."

Enough is enough

Jim Jelley - FBU secretary, Northants

The Bain report was a nasty little hatchet job, and releasing it early was a mistake that has backfired.... We are more determined than ever and all the firefighters will show exactly how they feel on Wednesday. The strike is going to happen… We have been reasonable and carried on talking, even though most of us thought we'd be striking last week. Now we have drawn a line in the sand and said that's it, enough is enough".

Danny Barrett - Surbiton FBU

Trade unions and other organisations should send motions and messages of support to local fire stations as soon as possible. There will be bucket collections outside fire stations. Support those. The Bain report told lies about our pensions. This has nothing to do with government - we finance the pension scheme ourselves.

"Modernisation" comes from Blair

Returning from the London talks, Dave Green of the FBU Executive and Notts FBU reported that the employers had "shafted the union". Dave said that firefighters had been told over many months that "they would be recognised for the job that they do." Dave was furious about the offer. The basic message of modernisation was more work but no more pay. Dave was particularly angry about the role of the government. "The modernisation proposals have Blair's fingers all over them", he said.

On the prospects for the strike however, Dave was very upbeat. He'd already been in touch with many Notts firefighters after the talks broke down. The mood was one of defiance, many wanting "to walk straight off the job". But, said Dave, "they will be ready to go on Wednesday at 6.00pm" .

Pradeep Verma secretary of Notts FBU
We are appalled by the employers and more so by the Government for not taking the last five months of negotiations seriously. We are totally united in that we will not accept this derisory offer, especially when it is linked to forcing us to accept archaic working practices.

Firefighters on line
Unofficial news and views

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