By Chris Reynolds
plus Solidarity round-up
"The Government and employers' offer isn't in any way acceptable. It boils down to their wish list for the last 15 years, cuts, closures, downgrading the pension and so on for 4%. That isn't something we can negotiate on. Our action will continue till we get a decent wage increase without strings. In south east London our stations are solid."
Gary Thorogood, Group Secretary, Southern Command Group 4 (responsible for eight stations in south east London)
"It is clear that the Government and the employers have made negotiations out of the question. Every time talks have been offered, we have called off the action, but this is being seen as a sign of weakness. We must continue the action now until something concrete is on the table."
Ross Neal, Chair of London Region FBU
With the one-day strike on 21 January, the Fire Brigades Union industrial action is up and running again. The next FBU strike is due on 28 January. The union says it is prepared to wage a long campaign to force the Government to come to terms.
The dispute is no longer just about pay. The New Labour government has gone on the counter-offensive.
Alarmed at the revival of the trade-union activism which he thought to have been killed for good by Thatcher, Blair wants to crush that revival in its early stages by crushing the FBU.
As the FBU states, "outrageous preconditions [are] being placed on talks, which rule out any normal negotiating process.
"The preconditions are that any future talks must include the union's full commitment to the Bain recommendations. These include proposals for two per cent year-on-year job cuts over the next four years, changes to the pension scheme and fewer firefighters at night, when the risk of death and injury to the public is highest...
"There is no offer beyond four per cent. Any further pay rise the following year is still based on job cuts..."
Taking stock of the scale of the counter-offensive against it, the FBU has stressed its willingness to negotiate and adjusted its perspective towards a long war of attrition.
What the firefighters need, above all, to enable them to move forward and regain the initiative, is solidarity. The London FBU's plans to call a Solidarity Conference within the next month or so are very timely.
FBU support groups round the country must swing back into action after the Christmas/New Year lull. The battle to impose safety precautions on employers when there is no regular fire service must be reinvigorated.
For example, the latest Workers' Liberty Tubeworker bulletin proposes: "We should all register our protest when working on strike days. Submit a memo, get it logged that you are working under duress.
"The union should demand - at both a system-wide and a local level - two drivers on each train, no re-opening stations after fire-alert closures, more cleaners to prevent litter build-up, bring back fire extinguishers on trains".
In offices, agreements can be and have been won not to use higher storeys on fire strike days, to evacuate whole buildings on partial alarms, or to employ extra fire wardens.
Such measures, as well as protecting life and health, also increase the economic impact of the FBU's strikes.
A new national trade-union solidarity demonstration should be called. Tied in with a definite and continuing programme of FBU strike action, it can be much bigger than the one on 7 December, which suffered from the lull in FBU activity. Calls for a special recall Labour Party conference on the FBU dispute and the war drive, already supported by Mick Rix of the train drivers' union ASLEF and the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, should be extended.
The Government feels confident about being hard-faced now. In a few weeks' time, strained on the one hand by sending troops to Iraq and on the other by huge opposition to its Iraqi war plans, it may well be not so confident at all. At that point the solidity of the firefighters and the solidarity of other workers can tip the balance.
Many FBU activists, determined to keep their campaign solid, and accepting that it may be a long struggle, are nonetheless anxious to have a more definite plan of campaign. For example, one thing necessary to extend solidarity and increase the pressure on the Government is a concerted effort to get FBU activists out speaking to workers at other workplaces, especially on strike days. That has to be planned, scheduled, worked towards.
A broad elected and accountable national strike committee, drawing in new rank and file activists from across the country, and reporting back regularly in detail, would be the best way to develop a realistic but forceful plan of campaign.
Unions should call a special Labour conference
By Maria Exall, CWU Exec, personal capacity
Andy Gilchrist is right: we need to replace New Labour with real Labour. To do that, the trade unions need to go on the political offensive against the Blairites within their own party. The unions should set about calling a special Labour Party Conference to discuss the Government's attempt to smash the firefighters' dispute and its threat to use the Tory anti-union laws against trade unionists.
Below is an appeal to all trade unionists and Labour Party members to call a special Conference. Join Mick Rix, general secretary of train drivers' union ASLEF, and many other trade unionists in signing this call. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs has also called for a special recall conference.
We the undersigned are dismayed and appalled by the actions of the Government in the firefighters dispute.
We wish to see a prompt resolution along the lines already agreed between the FBU and the employers.
We believe the Government should make the funds available for such a settlement and abandon its present posture of confrontation. We believe that the Government should be serving the interests of the people that elected it rather than following an agenda laid down by big business, the banks and the media.
To that end we pledge ourselves to campaign for a recall Labour Party conference that would reset the course of the Labour Government towards justice for the firefighters' investment in a publicly owned and controlled public sector, and trade union rights.
To sign up, email
Solidarity reports: around the UK
Battersea in a feisty mood
Battersea and Wandsworth firefighters support group met on the day of the strike. Firefighters from Tooting and Battersea stations attended, in feisty mood.
Dave Moore, FBU branch secretary at Battersea fire station, said the FBU still has great public support and "we are as determined as ever. We are not going to lose any jobs. We are not going to lose any fire stations". He also spoke of his opposition to "this ridiculous war".
Mick Hickson, FBU group secretary for Lambeth and Wandsworth, spoke about the proposed repeal of section 19 that would remove fire chiefs' obligation to consult the public over cuts to fire service provision. Section 19 had played a part in keeping Battersea fire station at capacity in recent years.
Regarding the dispute, he opposed calling off strikes. It simply emboldened government and employers to contemplate new attacks. As to the future: "We are going for so-called guerilla tactics now. We have pencilled in strikes till the end of the year. The employers have upped the ante. They are talking about 150 station closures. That's about 10% of the total workforce. That's a lot."
The support group will join the local FBU at Clapham Junction on 1 February, leafletting the public about the dispute. There will be a social in the evening.
More details from
Paul Clarke, Chairperson, Cambridge FBU told Solidarity:
Support here is 100%. All members are backing the strike. The attitude of members here is as strong as - or even stronger than - when we were on strike last year.
We need to rebuild momentum so that we are in a stronger position for the 48-hour strikes. Today we are concentrating on the picket line, but when the 48-hour strikes take place, we'll be going into town to build support. Members realise the importance of going out and educating people.
All whole-time fire stations in Cambridgeshire are out on strike. Many of the retained firefighters are taking part as well. But some fire stations staffed by retained firefighters are not on strike.
We can understand that retained firefighters do not want to withdraw cover from the community they serve. But our friends and families are in the same situation as their communities. It's a shame that the retained firefighters cannot see what the Bain Report will mean. The Retained Firefighters Union is really an annoying distraction.
The employers' latest offer is an absolute disgrace. Every time the employers make an offer, their offer is worse than the previous offer.
We have made it clear that we would accept a negotiated settlement. But this has been impossible to achieve. The employers are only prepared to take part in talks if we accept their pre-conditions. But you cannot negotiate on that basis.
Many of our members in the county are ex-servicemen. When the dispute started some of them expressed difficulties about striking if there was a conflict in Iraq. But now attitudes have changed. Local government minister Nick Raynsford has said that our dispute is irrelevant to the build-up to war. If we are irrelevant to the build-up to war, then the war is irrelevant to us.
At 9am about 80 firefighters assembled outside Kirkstall fire station and marched into the centre of Leeds to form a picket outside the Civic Hall (the HQ of the city council). After a short rally the firefighters moved into the main shopping areas to give out leaflets and collect money.
Morale appears to be better than during the previous strike days.
Firefighters here reported continued high levels of public support on picket lines, although some stations have reduced picket cover - either through an unwillingness to offer 'back-up' to the Green Goddesses, or because of low morale.
Many felt the decision to call off so many strikes before Christmas had weakened the current position, but ideas for rescuing the situation were limited. Some felt that the firefighters should now return to work, and strike again in 18 months during the next election, whilst others wanted an immediate stepping up of action.
The expectation here is that the Government will seek an injunction against the strike in the near future.
FBU activists from Leicestershire lobbied Labour MPs this week, and reported some success and support from two: Jim Marshall (Leicester South) and David Taylor (North West Leicestershire). However both MPs claimed that they had a "loyalty" to the Government, and would not break ranks over the issue.
There's an urgent need for collective decisions to be taken - the firefighters in the better stations need to be discussing the issues with their colleagues, and, ideally, some firefighters with experience of other recent disputes, from Derbyshire, Essex and the like, should be invited up to speak to branch meetings. Unfortunately, the culture seems to have settled into a "wait and see" approach.
Despite the rain and cold firefighters at Pilgrim Street Fire Station in Newcastle were very upbeat with a full picket line.
The mood from the firefighters was one of determination and resilience. Although the break for Christmas and negotiations may have meant some slip in publicity and public awareness, it doesn't appear to have broken the firefighters desire to fight. One firefighter said that they were in for the long haul, not expecting immediate results but aware that they needed to stand firm and show the Government that they are not ready to back down.
Mixed vibes on the picket lines in Oxford. The picket at Rewley Road station, where most of the FBU organisers work, was well organised and the mood upbeat, but I am told that confidence at the Slade station was not so high. Strikers are confused by the apparent indecisiveness of their national leadership. Nevertheless they remain determined.
Prescott and the fire chiefs would probably tell you that the firefighters couldn't possibly run the service on their own. Romford's firefighters, however, have shown a level of organisation that would probably surprise their bosses. When I arrived at their picket line I found that they had constructed a fully glazed wooden hut, complete with a house door and a picket fence, to act as a strike HQ!
The firefighter that I spoke to thought that the FBU would be in for a long struggle and that the Government may use the war against Iraq as a pretext to ban the strike, and possibly sack all the strikers and then offer them their jobs back on new contracts. Despite this, he said, everyone was determined and that he was prepared for a fight, particularly as he said that they had "lost all that money before Christmas for nothing."
Morale was low at Kilmarnock fire station, with only half a dozen pickets. They say they don't see a way to win - that it is just going to go on and on. Kilmarnock and Kilwinning were the only fire stations in Ayrshire to have a 24-hour picket, most (Ayr, Dreghorn, Irvine) voting just to do a picket till 12 midnight.