As we go to press the Fire Brigade Union are holding talks with the Government over their pay claim of £30,000 a year. The union suspended two 48-hour strikes planned for 29-30 October and 2-3 November after talks with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott appeared to indicate at least part of the union's claim would be met by the Government. An eight day strike is due to start on 6 November unless a deal is made.
Editorial from Solidarity 3/15, 31 October 2002
The union's recent strike ballot had a staggering 83% turn-out with an equally impressive 87.6% vote in favour of strike action. The ballot was the culmination of the systematic "£30k campaign" and has had a powerful effect not only on firefighters, but also on other workers - particularly in the public sector.
The strike vote was a unequivocal warning to the Government and the employers that firefighters everywhere are prepared to fight tooth and nail for a decent living wage. The firefighters mean business. They have organised a stronger, angrier and more prepared fight than we have seen from any group of workers for a very long time.
Consequently the Government has appeared very scared indeed. Its immediate response to the strike ballot was hysterical. Ministers accused the firefighters of being "criminally irresponsible" for daring to consider strike action for better wages. The FBU leaders were denounced as "Scargillite" in a desperate attempt to undermine public support for them.
Blair insisted that "we" (the taxpayer) cannot afford £450 million to finance the FBU's claim. Yet that amount is nothing compared to what the Government is prepared to pay out to break the strike by using the army and the Green Goddesses. And it is only a few quid more than the Government has already generously doled out to privatised nuclear power company British Energy to stop it going bust.
There are some cocky young New Labour types in Parliament who think the FBU should be taken head on and shown who's boss. But Blair and Brown are a bit more cautious than New Labour's bumptious and ignorant young things. The Government knows the firefighters have the support and respect of the public. They know the firefighters' dispute could kick-start and galvanise many other pay claims in the public sector. So they have had to make some calculations. With a war against Iraq looming, can they afford a war against workers at home?
Only rank and rile firefighters can decide whether any deal on offer from the Government is good enough. If not, the firefighters will be determined to go ahead with the strikes.
As Steve Godward, a West Midlands firefighter, told Solidarity,
"There can be no doubt, the resounding yes vote means we're prepared to fight. If the employers' offer is no good, with too many strings attached, then we should say a resounding No. All of us, firefighters and our supporters in other trade unions, should not let this dispute go off the boil. We should carry on preparing as if we're going into battle. You can bet the bosses are doing just that."
And if the offer from the Government is acceptable? It will have a knock on effect on other public sector workers, many of whom are already engaged in disputes: ambulance staff, council workers in London, teachers and college lecturers. It will make those groups of workers more determined.
In the next few days trade unionists and socialists must keep up our preparations for solidarity with the firefighters. We should:
- Force bosses to carry out risk assessments in our workplaces to determine what will happen if there is an emergency without cover from firefighters. This will put pressure on the bosses to close workplaces down if they don't meet the required health and safety standards
- Talk to people in our workplaces about the politics of this dispute
- Get FBU speakers to talk to union meetings and visit workplaces.
- Hold regular collections around the workplace and on the streets if strikes go ahead
- Set up and get involved in firefighters support groups
- Be ready to counter the poisonous propaganda the Government and its friends in the media will spew out to defend this stinking system which puts profit before people.
Let us hope that the firefighters can win their dispute - with or without a strike. Either way it is time workers in the UK - who work the longest hours in Europe for some of the lowest rates of pay - said enough is enough. Stop the retreat, reclaim union rights, stop the privatisations and win decent pay!