Britain: Fire fighters strike. Blair declares war

"THE GOVERNMENT has completely lost control of the agenda. This is no longer just a dispute between the FBU and the government: it has descended into a fight between the government and the whole union movement" (Observer 24 November).

This quote from John Edmonds, leader of the GMB union, accurately sums up the firefighters’ dispute.

The class lines are drawn. On the one side, the firefighters and control staff, fighting for a decent living wage and to protect their jobs and working conditions. Behind the firefighters, public sector and other workers who understand that a victory for the firefighters will be a victory for low paid workers everywhere.

Pitted against them are Blair, Brown, Prescott and the New Labour government, cheered on by the bosses’ club, the CBI, and the right-wing press, all determined to take on the FBU so that they can continue with their agenda of privatisation and poverty pay for public sector workers.

Chaos and blunder

Blair brought forward his monthly press conference in a desperate attempt to regain the initiative after a week of chaos and blunder. Both army and police chiefs said they wanted nothing to do with his proposal to seize the red fire engines and the chief of defence staff warned that using troops in the strike would undermine Blair’s plans for war with Iraq.

Then Prescott showed his contempt for firefighters by staying in bed when a deal between the FBU and employers was in reach. He then seemed to contradict Brown by saying that the deal was "still worth talking about".

Blair’s hardline intervention has hardened the mood of firefighters on the picket lines as they gear up for what could be a long, drawn out struggle.

Blair is still insisting that any pay rise over 4% must be linked to ’modernisation’, which all firefighters know means less jobs, worse conditions and an inferior service for the general public.

Everything they have fought for over the past 25 years is at stake. With New Labour digging their heels in for a protracted struggle, the FBU should consider moving from discontinuous action towards all-out action to increase the pressure on the government.

It’s clearly big business that is pulling New Labour’s strings. Digby Jones of the CBI has called on Blair to "stand firm" and "not budge an inch". The Financial Times turned up the heat by asking "does the government govern?". "Each surrender would make resisting the next one more costly" they declared, using the language of war. "A government’s monopoly over coercive power is the basis of civilised life." (25 November) They call for "proper preparations" for a long strike including the use of red engines "If that means limits on Britain’s deployment of troops in a new Gulf War, so be it."

Solidarity vital

There is huge public support for the firefighters and any provocative action by New Labour could turn opinion even further against the government. However, urged on by his big business backers, it’s possible that Blair could move in the direction of trying to seize the red fire engines or using the courts to ban the strikes.

Police chiefs have said that they do not want their ’neutrality’ to be compromised by crossing picket lines. But although individual police (who are also threatened with ’modernisation’) and soldiers have sympathy with the firefighters, ultimately the army and police are not impartial, but used to defend the profits and interests of big business and the capitalist class – as clearly happened in the miners’ strike of 1984-85 (see page 10).

If there is any attempt to escalate the dispute in this way, the whole of the trade union movement should be organised in support of the firefighters, including general strike action.

Blair says that this is a strike that the FBU cannot win. He claims that any rise over 4%, if not paid for by ’modernisation’ will wreck the economy. But as the Financial Times bluntly put it: "The principle is not that the £200 million cost of a deal with the firefighters would cripple the public finances – it represents less than 0.05% of annual government spending. But it would set an extremely dangerous precedent".

Blair is taking on the firefighters to set an example to all public sector workers. But the firefighters can win. Solidarity action by other workers, most of whom are also facing low pay, cuts and privatisation, is the key to winning this strike (see page 6). Left union leaders such as those in the RMT, ASLEF, PCS and CWU should, together with the FBU, call a conference of shop stewards and trade union representatives to discuss how solidarity action can be organised. A victory for the firefighters will be a victory for all workers.

Views from the picket line

I’m disappointed that this didn’t get sorted because someone on £120,000 couldn’t get out of bed before 9am. And I’m angry that they won’t pay us because they’re frightened of paying everyone else. It’s unbelievable that the same people who recommended 40% to the MPs, and they took it, recommended the same to us and the MPs said we can’t have it.

All we want is to be paid a decent wage and to get back to doing the job we do well. But instead we are on a picket line. I feel awful about it but the government are determined to break our union and keep all other public sector workers’ pay low. They can afford to go to war in Iraq. They are prepared to spend millions a day to keep this strike going but they won’t pay us a decent wage. It looks like being a long battle and a lean Christmas, but we have to believe that we can win.

Zoe, fire controller, Swindon

Editorial and quotes from The Socialist (29 November 2002 edition) paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales section of the CWI.

 

Further reports on the strike in The Socialist

 

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