Thursday 16 September saw one of the most formidable demonstrations in the capital city for some time. 2,500 uniformed firefighters marched with Fire Brigades Union (FBU) flags and placards, whistles and vuvuzelas, and even a bagpiper, to protest outside the London Fire Authority (LFA).
All 5,557 firefighters in London are threatened with the sack if they don’t accept new contracts. Contracts which not only threaten firefighters’ jobs, conditions of work and family lives, but will open the door to the destruction of the fire service as we know it.
London FBU members were joined by FBU delegations from Scotland, Yorkshire, Devon and Dorset, and other brigades around the country. As one London firefighter explained: "London is the biggest brigade in the country. If they get away with this here, they’ll go for the rest of the country."
Leader of the London Fire Authority, Brian Coleman, is a Tory councillor and London Assembly member for Barnet. Well known for claiming expenses for exorbitant taxi fares and dinners, Coleman is part of a council attempting to force through EasyJet-style services in Barnet. This means the council providing only the barest minimum of services and people paying for anything extra. In reality, this is where he’s taking our fire service!
To chants of "Coleman out!", a firefighter paraded dressed as Mr Toad in a T-shirt declaring "Coleman doesn’t cut the mustard". London FBU regional secretary Jim McVeigh read out the LFA mission statement, to shouts of derision after every clause.
Photo: Suzanne Beishon
Amid chants and boos for the Fire Authority members, speakers from the RMT, NUT, PCS, GMB and other unions pledged support. Socialist Party member Martin Powell-Davies, who is on the national executive of the National Union of Teachers, explained the risks for schools without adequate fire cover. Making it clear that working class people should not be forced to pay for the bankers’ and bosses’ crisis, Martin called for: "No cuts, No mass sackings, Solidarity with the FBU!"
In an indication of the kind of solidarity that will be necessary if a firefighters’ strike takes place, and to great applause, Steve Hedley from London region Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) stated that his union will do its best to ensure that no trains run during a fire service strike, as they would not be safe. He called for the rich to pay their taxes, for the scrapping of Trident and the war in Afghanistan, and concluded: "If this system cannot afford jobs and services, then we cannot afford this system!"
A fiery speech from the London rep on the FBU national executive, Ian Leahair, laid bare what is at stake if these cuts go through. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack announced that the London FBU has now given formal notice that it will ballot for strike action.
The song sheet given out at the protest included the traditional working class socialist song "the Internationale".
Martin Powell-Davies and Steve Hedley announced that an anti-cuts demonstration called by London RMT on 23 October will be a joint demo of unions across London that are fighting the cuts. Steve called for ’a coalition of every working man and woman in London, trade unionists, community campaigners, pensioners’ groups and young people’.