MATTHEW RICHARDSON from Lincoln reports how, led by a fire tender and carrying a coffin to symbolise the demise of the fire service, 200 firefighters and supporters marched through the centre of Lincoln.
Firefighters in England and Wales spoke to The Socialist about their strike action and the prospects for the pay dispute.
Solid support for firefighters pay strike
Speakers from UNISON and TGWU pledged their solidarity with the FBU. And Lincoln FBU brigade secretary Barry Foster said: "We will not accept station cuts to fund any pay rise. Employers are preparing a second rate, understaffed, demoralised service. We will not let it happen."
NEIL MACPHERSON, brigade secretary of Mid and West Wales FBU, spoke to Ken Smith: "The main issue is still pay, along with the implications of the Bain report on job losses, stations closures and changes in working practises. All of which will have a devastating effect on the protection offered to the public.
"Public support is holding up well, despite the biased reporting. People know we’re not being selfish, like the Tories and government ministers claim.
"But we’re in this situation, coinciding with the government preparing war against Iraq. We don’t want to see any troops or the people in Iraq killed, and we think it is wrong that the government are trying to morally blackmail us into working.
"Whether we are in work or not will not save soldiers and civilian lives. That’s why the FBU is also opposing this war that no one wants.
"I don’t think the strikes before Christmas should have been suspended and things could have been brought to a head. This branch had a meeting last night (20 January), which passed a resolution supporting an all-out strike.
"Personally I think we should escalate the action. The attitude of the members is hardening every day.
"I think the strike can be won, we are determined to win. Other unions should come out publicly and support us and organise supportive action. Tell the union leaders ’sod the anti-union laws, we’ve got to do something to defend the FBU’.
"The FBU could look at organising a conference to raise the issue of practical solidarity action. It’s not just an attack on the FBU but the whole public sector and at the very least, we should be mounting a joint struggle with other public-sector unions to take on the government.
"I’ve handed out 1,500 forms to every member of this brigade on the political donations to Labour. I think this will be repeated up and down the country. I think this year’s FBU conference will see the union split from the Labour Party."
ANDY MOFFATT, FBU divisional secretary and a firefighter at Morriston, Mid and West Wales brigade, said: "The most crucial issue now coming out of the struggle is the lack of service we will be able to provide. The government seems to want to use the dispute to cut 4,500 jobs, 150 stations and make up the shortfall in the Ambulance Service.
"Bain, modernisation and pay are interlinked. When we first had the pay formula, we were on two-thirds of MPs’ pay now we’re on less than half. This pay claim is just to bring us back to where we should be.
"The government are deliberately trying to draw us into talks, get strikes cancelled and then at the last minute pull the carpet out from underneath us. We’ve had enough. They should come up with a good offer or we escalate the strike.
"There is now a lot of support for all-out action amongst the members. To hold public support we have to explain that the lack of emergency cover in an all-out strike is what it will be like if the government get away with the cuts. It will be the government’s responsibility.
"We should be calling on all the other unions to stop funding the Labour government. That’s the best way to get to this government. I doubt very much if there will be many firefighters or their families who will be supporting Labour at the next election.
"I think we’ve had great support from other unions but we need to see that delivering solidarity action also."
CHRIS BROAD, FBU Neath branch chairman, said the strike was at a critical stage where pay, conditions and defending union rights were all key issues. He said: "The government have upped the ante now with the threat of 4,500 job cuts. We’re now fighting for fair pay and to stop the fire service being decimated.
"I think firefighters now realise this is a fight to the death and we’re not prepared to lose it. We are more determined than ever.
"I think we have to go for all-out action and we can hold public support. People realise that it is the government that have dragged this dispute on now for nine months.
"I think solidarity action from other unions is now essential and we need firefighters to go into other workplaces, rather than just the leaders of the unions discussing how the strike should go. Where it has been done we’ve received a great deal of support.
"Any threat to outlaw our strike action must be opposed. But I think Labour is not confident of doing it. I think there’s no chance of the FBU funding the Labour Party again in the foreseeable future."
STEVENAGE FIREFIGHTERS summed up their feelings by putting up a notice saying: "Fire station closed for modernisation".
Red Watch from Whitechapel, east London commented: "We’re all in touch with the local unions. All UNISON branches have adopted a fire station. One said "Personally I think the Labour Party has done nothing but bad for us. Both sides have been ready to reach agreement and the government have knocked the settlement on the head.
"Tony Blair will never get in again. But whatever government you have they’ve all got the same agenda. Everyone at this station has stopped the political levy."
A firefighter at nearby Shoreditch said he would never buy the Sun again because of the coverage, particularly the front-page attack on Andy Gilchrist.
Bill Mullins spoke to Simon at Euston fire station in central London: "We should stick to the plan of strikes and not cancel them. We went more than half way to meeting the government but they just knocked us back.
"If they get an injunction then we can’t just go back to work with nothing. I agree that we should defy it but I don’t know what the union will say. We might have to stay out anyway.
"It’s a good idea to call for support from other unions, like the tube workers did."