The case for the firefighters
By Mark Sandell
After four years of training firefighters are paid £21,531 a year. After the 1977-78 firefighters national strike a pay formula was introduced to set firefighters' wages, but that formula has failed to keep wages in line with average earnings.
At their national conference this year, the Fire Brigades Union voted unanimously to make the following claim: £30,000 a year for full time firefighters; and for retained firefighters (who are employed part-time in rural areas and are on call 24 hours a day) £7,000 a year (for being on call) plus £13 for each hour worked.
So far the FBU national office have run a high profile campaign with protests up and down the country, including two demonstrations of over 10,000 in London. However, as Steve Godward a Birmingham firefighter, told Solidarity, it is now time to take strike action. And local strike committees need to inject rank and file energy and democracy into the campaign.
Initially the FBU asked their employers to join them in the National Joint Council in calling for the Government to pay the claim. The Fire Service bosses refused. Nick Rainsford, the Government Minister responsible, responded by offering an "Independent Review" over pay. The Government would use their appointees to filibuster over the issue until the war with Iraq was got out of the way after which they would then offer some pathetic amount. The FBU, to their credit, rejected this old trick.
In the 1977/78 nine-week national fire fighters strike the Government used the army and its "Green Goddess" fire engines to organise a scabbing operation. The service they provided was nothing like that of the Fire Brigades. This time round army fire-fighting will be even worse.
The 49-year-old Green Goddesses only produce 80 pounds per square inch of water pressure compared with 400 pounds from the civilian engines. Jock Munro, treasurer of the FBU in Scotland said: "The army engines take far longer to control a blaze, which endangers lives." He also said, "We will blockade or occupy fire stations if they put soldiers in them."
Blair must be deeply worried by the strike's effect on the army at this time when he wants to join with Bush in an attack on Iraq.
Another good reason to give the fire fighters our maximum solidarity. From front page
Firefighters are demanding £30,000 a year and £7,000 a year plus £13 per hour for retained fire fighters. Not too much too ask? Well yes it is if you are Tony Blair.
Blair has said that "we" (the taxpayer) cannot afford the £450 million the fire fighters' pay claim will cost. Yet the Government has just given £410 million to the bosses at the privatised nuclear power company, British Energy, to stop them going bust. And New Labour are preparing to spend billions on a war with Iraq.
Of course "we" can afford it. That is not the real issue. New Labour will not pay the firefighters because they do not want to pay any public sector workers (or any private sector workers for that matter) a decent wage.
The labour movement will face a serious test in the coming weeks. Will the firefighters get the solidarity they need from us?
French firefighters have said they will shut the Channel Tunnel during fire strikes. That is a good start. The leaders of the rail unions ASLEF and RMT have already raised the banner of solidarity. They say they will ballot to strike alongside the FBU over safety on the London Underground. Railworkers are facing a number of attacks and it is very good indeed their leaders are showing a more willingness to counter these attacks. United strike action with the firefighters will strengthen the railworkers' fight tremendously.
The firefighters' strike could become a focus for many more workers who want to fight back, but it up to socialists and trade union activists to make that happen.
All trade unionists should be asking themselves:
How can we show solidarity with firefighters?
Are we safe at work during a firefighters strike? Can we use safety concerns to take action along side the FBU?
Should our union join the fight for decent pay and conditions? Do we deserve better pay and conditions?
The answer of course is that all unions can do what the rail unions are doing. Industrial action on safety grounds can be legal, will get round anti-union laws against solidarity action because it will be over safety concerns that any workplace will have with no regular fire service in operation. It is also legal to refuse to work due to serious safety concerns.
All kinds of solidarity, short of strike action are also important - support groups, messages of support, workplace collections - trade unions and student unions should start organising for these things now.
But the key message we have to get across in our workplaces, communities and students unions is clear: solidarity with the firefighters will win us all better pay, conditions and services!