MANY FIREFIGHTERS and other workers will have looked on bewildered as the FBU (Fire Brigade Union) executive council called off the eight-day firefighters’ strike due to begin on 4 December.
Some firefighters will of course be hoping that a negotiated deal can now be agreed that will guarantee them a substantial pay increase with no job cuts or attacks on working conditions. But New Labour have made it quite clear that their position has not changed and that any deal has to be "within the parameters" that they have set.
There was no deal on the table, no shift in the government’s hardline stance that any pay rise over 4% had to be linked to ’modernisation’ – not even negotiations – just ’exploratory talks’ at the arbitration and conciliation body ACAS.
As The Guardian editorial (3 December) put it: "… all the dignity in the world cannot disguise the essential political fact. The FBU has peered over the brink and retreated".
On the morning of the day that the strike was called off, the Daily Mirror declared: "Now it’s open war" – and for the New Labour government it is. They finally admitted that as far as they are concerned ’modernisation’ means thousands of jobs cuts. Government ministers were vicious in their attacks on the FBU. The armed forces minister Adam Ingram described one FBU official as "not fit to lace the boots" of soldiers.
Only hours before the executive made its decision, fire service minister, Nick Raynsford, would not rule out banning future strikes. The government was also considering passing legislation that would force through ’modernisation’ over the heads of the firefighters and the union.
Andy Gilchrist said that ministers will be making a "grave mistake" if they see the FBU’s decision as a sign of weakness. But in the face of such provocation, that is exactly how it will be viewed by a government that is hellbent on forcing through its agenda of low pay, cuts and worsening conditions not just in the fire service but in the whole public sector.
Last weekend Andy Gilchrist was accused of ’politicising’ the strike after he made a speech to a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. In it he called for New Labour to be replaced by Real Labour; a call, not for a new workers’ party to replace New Labour – which is what is needed to represent the interests of working-class people – but for workers to go in and ’reclaim’ the Labour Party, which would gain very little echo among rank and file firefighters (see page 5).
There’s no doubt that the rabid attacks on Gilchrist (who is a Labour Party member) from the right-wing press, government ministers and even some trade union leaders influenced the decision not to go ahead with the planned strike.
Gilchrist declared that by calling off the strike the union was showing " proof of the non- political nature of this dispute". But, as The Socialist has consistently argued, for this government the dispute has been political from day one.
They will not pay the firefighters the wages they deserve – not because there is not enough money but because they want to use the firefighters as a stick to beat other public sector workers into accepting poverty wages and privatisation. The firefighters are pawns in New Labour’s plans for a big-business friendly public sector where profits come before a living wage, jobs, working conditions and decent public services.
That’s why it has been in the interests of all workers to back the firefighters. And the firefighters have had enormous support from ordinary working-class people. Other union leaders have also understood that if the firefighters lose then they and their members could be next in line and have, feeling the pressure, come out and backed the FBU. As John Edmonds, certainly no left-wing union leader, stated: "This is no longer just a dispute between the FBU and a government: it has descended into a fight between the government and the whole union movement".
Even the TUC general secretary, John Monks, normally a loyal supporter of Blair, was forced to reflect the mood amongst ordinary workers by calling on everyone to support the firefighters and by backing the national demonstration organised for 7 December.
This demonstration potentially could have mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers in solidarity with the firefighters’ strike and in defence of jobs and services. It could have acted as a springboard for wider solidarity action, which is the key to winning this dispute.
But, instead of putting their efforts into making the demonstration an enormous show of strength in support of the firefighters and building for solidarity action, the TUC were manoeuvring behind the scenes to involve ACAS in the dispute.
Even if ACAS was genuinely a neutral body (which it is not, see page 10) the government will still insist that any agreement be paid for by ’modernisation’.
The full Bain report is due to be published on 16 December. Firefighters will remain determined that their leaders must resist any pay deal which involves job cuts or any undermining of their hard won working conditions or of the fire service as a whole.
Unless the government agrees to fund a substantial pay offer with no strings attached, then the FBU must resume strike action. Andy Gilchrist has said that the next eight-day strike, due to begin on 16 December, is still "live". However, four strikes have already been called off so far.
There’s no doubt that the tactic of discontinuous strike action, interspersed with fruitless negotiations, could eventually have the effect of confusing, demobilising and even demoralising firefighters who have so far stood firm. In order to match the determined stance of the government, firefighters need to stand equally firm. No further strike should be called off unless a substantial offer is on the table. If necessary the FBU should consider all-out action.
The firefighters’ resolute stance to fight to defend pay, jobs and services won widespread support amongst other workers. This is a fight that affects the whole working-class. The FBU must continue to stand firm. With solidarity support they can win. And given the ambivalent role of the TUC so far in this dispute, the left trade union leaders should be discussing now how that support can be organised.