Up to 1,000 firefighters poured into the conference room of TUC headquarters for a mass meeting of the London Fire Brigades Union (FBU) on Tuesday night (24 August).
They gathered to discuss the union’s strategy in response to the London Fire Authority’s (LFA) attempt to rip up their contracts.
The LFA is proposing to sack 5,557 firefighters and re-employ them on worse terms and conditions. At the moment firefighters work a nine-hour day shift and a 15-hour night shift. LFA bosses want to change this to two equal 12-hour shifts. Expected upshots following this change are fire stations closing, fire engines removed from night-time service and even cuts in frontline staff.
Management claims this is in order to "modernise" the fire service. This is the same ’modernisation’ process that has seen response time to emergency call-out increase by 18%.
In reality ’modernisation’ means cuts in service. The switch to equal shifts is really about reducing the extra money paid to firefighters to work nights.
However, Londoners will be asking: Is the tiny amount of money saved by the shift change worth the inevitable increased danger to life and property that this assault on the fire service will bring?
In the best traditions of industrial democracy the meeting was not just a rally of the union leadership addressing the rank and file.
It was also a detailed report from the national and regional leaderships about the course of negotiations so far, the precise implications of the shift changes and a step by step outline of the union’s strategy to defeat them.
When the speeches from the top table concluded, time was given for questions and comments from the floor.
Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the FBU, outlined the political context of the dispute. Only two years ago speculation and gambling by the banks triggered a global economic meltdown. Taxpayers’ money was spent to bail out the likes of RBS, Lloyds TSB and Fred Goodwin’s pension fund.
That money is now being clawed back from the pay and working conditions of public sector workers, including firefighters.
To loud applause and shouts of approval, Matt Wrack declared that firefighters had not caused the economic crisis and they were not going to pay for the consequences.
Ian Leahair, London Regional Secretary, took the floor to report on the London region’s strategy to resist management’s plans to tear up firefighters’ contracts.
The region has already given notice that it will ballot for action short of strike action. This ballot will close on 17 September. Action following this ballot could begin as early as 24 September. The day before the ballot closes, on 16 September, the FBU will hold a lobby of the London Fire Authority, beginning at 12 noon.
If there is no progress by 6 September the union will give seven days notice of its intention to ballot members for strike action.
The ballot will run for four weeks with results out in the week beginning 11 October. Ian Leahair pledged that once the ballot process begins it will not be called off short of management withdrawing their threat to sack firefighters.
He also promised, to loud applause, that any deal reached with management would be in writing with the final say on whether to accept or reject it resting with the London membership.
There were two guest speakers on the platform. One was Labour MP John McDonnell, the convenor of the FBU parliamentary group. The other was Socialist Party and Unite member Suzanne Muna, representing the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN).
Suzanne spoke about the purpose of the NSSN, to bring together grassroots union activists in their common struggle to defend the working conditions and living standards of working people.
She spoke about the current onslaught by the millionaire Con-Dem government on the working class and the need for a united approach in the trade union movement to defeat the government’s plans.
Commenting on the refusal of some union leaders to organise a fightback, Suzanne raised the planned NSSN lobby of the TUC conference in Manchester on 12 September.
The aim of the lobby will be to push the TUC to organise a national demonstration against cuts. This proposal was greeted with enthusiastic applause by firefighters. By the end of the meeting the huge wedge of leaflets NSSN supporters had brought along had all been snapped up.
If even a fraction of the energy, determination and militancy that was present at this meeting can be transferred to Manchester it should be a very good lobby indeed.