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(en) Freedom 6402 25 Jan, 2003 - FBU's Gilchrist accused of sell-out

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 1 Feb 2003 05:02:11 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Until recently Bob Pounder was Brigade 
Secretary for Greater Manchester Fire Brigades 
Union (FBU). But on 5th December, he was told 
by FBU Vice President Phil Micallef that he was 
being suspended from his union job for 
comments he'd made to the press about the 
firefighters' dispute. He'd previously described 
FBU leader Andy Gilchrist as a 'disgrace', and 
accused him of selling out Britain's fire-fighters. 
He'd also questioned Gilchrist's ability to lead 
the union.
Some critics have interpreted Bob's comments 
as a bid by militants within the FBU to oust 
Gilchrist, while others have suggested that his 
comments are typical of his honesty and the 
passionate views he holds. In this Freedom 
interview, Bob Pounder (speaking in a personal 
capacity) sets the record straight and explains to 
Derek Pattison why he's seen fit to criticise the 
FBU leadership publicly.

Freedom: You've accused Andy Gilchrist of 
selling out Britain's firefighters. What are your 
reasons for saying this?
Bob Pounder: Andy Gilchrist made it perfectly 
clear that our conditions of service weren't for 
sale. He also made it clear that he wouldn't be 
taking the FBU down the road to an enquiry. Our 
pay claim was based on its own merits, which 
reflected changes in fire service employment 
over 25 years.
After talks with the Deputy Prime Minister, 
Gilchrist agreed to meet the employers knowing 
full well that there was no further money on the 
table. By doing so, he made it obvious that he 
was prepared to make concessions to the 
employers, not in regard to the size of the pay 
claim, but in terms of 'modernisation', which has 
always been the employers' agenda. While in 
talks with the employers, the FBU leadership 
called off two 48-hour strikes and an eight-day 
strike. They then realised that the employers 
had no intention of conceding a substantial 
payrise and that they were intending to 
implement the recommendations of the Bain 
As they were unable to make progress, the 
leadership called a 48-hour strike on 13th 
November. On 22nd November, they agreed to 
'binding arbitration' after the employers offered 
a 16% payrise which was to be linked to 
modernisation and phased in over three years. 
Even though the FBU leadership had offered the 
employers everything, this wasn't acceptable to 
the government. Consequently, the first 
eight-day strike began at 9am on 22nd 
For me it was clear from the very beginning that 
the FBU leadership were always prepared to 
negotiate on pay, but also on the question of our 
national conditions of service. Everything this 
union has ever stood for and fought for is now on 
the table as far as the employers and the FBU 
leadership are concerned. This is why I believe 
we've been sold out.

Freedom: What, in your view, was the main 
reason why the FBU leadership suspended 
industrial action in favour of arbitration through 
the conciliation service, ACAS? What was the 
turning point?
Bob Pounder: The FBU spent millions on a high 
publicity campaign. However, when the 
leadership began to realise what they were up 
against, they weren't politically up to it. It meant 
the leadership had to confront the state, which it 
was unable to do because it's a reformist 
leadership which seeks to do a deal within the 
existing system. The FBU leadership isn't up to 
the task of taking on the government and 
bringing down the government - this is what the 
issue is about.
The existing system isn't of a mind to allow the 
FBU to carry on as it has done these past twenty 
years, waging a militant campaign to defend our 
members' interests and standards of fire cover. 
The fact that Andy Gilchrist is a member of the 
Labour Party, as are many of the Executive 
Council (EC) and officials of the FBU, renders it 
extremely difficult to fight a government which 
is part of the same party that they belong to, and 
this informs their approach.

Freedom: Do you think this strike has been 
about bringing down the Labour government?
Bob Pounder: I don't think the FBU leadership 
has intentionally fought to bring down the 
government. They're trade unionists at the end 
of the day. My own view is that the government 
has ultimately raised the stakes because they've 
said that the FBU must bend the knee or they'll 
destroy the FBU. I think the conclusion must be 
reached that, if you're going to take on the 
government, then somebody must win and 
somebody must lose and therefore, in that sense, 
it is about bringing down the government.

Freedom: Do you believe the FBU campaign for 
a 40% pay increase was a realistic and 
achievable demand?
Bob Pounder: To be honest with you, I was 
surprised when the leadership came out with 
that figure. It wasn't generated by the 
membership, but based on a report from the 
Labour Research Department. Given that many 
of our members face financial hardship, it 
seemed reasonable to put forward the 30k pay 
demand, which was seen as professional pay for 
professional firefighters. Personally, I'd have 
argued for police pay parity, I'd have argued that 
whatever the police earned was good enough for 
the firefighter.
However, this was a revolutionary demand and if 
you make such demands you have to fight like a 
revolutionary. There's no point in having slogans 
that say '30k now!' and then backing off and 
saying we'll accept 16% over three years. 
Moreover, because we couldn't win this strike on 
our own, the leadership should have appealed for 
wider trade union support and asked (as a first 
step) for a day of action to show support. This 
would have sent a message to the government 
that they hadn't just taken on the FBU, but also 
the wider working class. Talking to ACAS 
amounts to a defeat in my view, because the 
FBU leadership has never led a fight.

Freedom: In going public with your criticism of 
the FBU leadership, do you believe that you've 
helped or hindered the cause of the firefighters 
during this dispute?
Bob Pounder: I don't believe for one minute that 
I've hindered the FBU at all. I took a decision to 
make a statement because we'll get nothing from 
ACAS. I spoke out in defence of the policy of the 
FBU, a union that I've served for 23 years. I 
think I've said out loud what a lot of firefighters 
believe, but at the moment many people can't 
see a way forward other than to go along with the 
EC This position must be challenged and what 
I've said is the first down payment on a challenge 
to the leadership and the direction of the FBU. 
This isn't a moral issue. It's about getting people 
together to challenge the leadership that 
Gilchrist and the EC have provided. We must 
assert our class position over the interests of a 
trade union bureaucracy that's basically 
enthralled to a Labour government.

Freedom: What reasons did the FBU give for 
suspending you as secretary of its Manchester 
branch? How was the suspension implemented? 
What action are the FBU intending to take 
against you?
Bob Pounder: I first became aware that I was 
being suspended when the FBU Vice President, 
Phil Micallef, passed on a message to say that he 
wanted to speak to me. He told me I was being 
suspended because of an interview I'd given to 
the Manchester Evening News. My personal 
computer and mobile phone were then 
repossessed and I was escorted off the premises 
like some sacked worker. Two officials were then 
appointed to replace me. When I eventually 
received the paperwork, I was informed that I'd 
been suspended because I'd acted in a way that 
was prejudicial to the interests of the union. I'm 
now waiting to be summoned before the EC I feel 
that I've done nothing wrong other than criticise 
the leadership for selling out firefighters. I think 
the employers are quietly celebrating my 
removal from office.

Freedom: What support have you received from 
other FBU members? Are you aware of any other 
FBU reps that have been targeted for 
disciplinary action by the FBU?

Bob Pounder: I've received tremendous support 
from the London region and support from a lot of 
people that I've known over the years, up and 
down the country. An open letter from myself 
was distributed on the Trades Union 
Congress/FBU march in December, and I know 
there was a lot of anger about my suspension. I 
believe that the president of the FBU, Ruth 
Winters, has sent out a circular to say that my 
suspension can't be discussed at Brigade and 
Regional Committees. Derbyshire wanted to put 
through a resolution supporting me, but their EC 
member told them it would be ruled out of order. 
I'm also aware that Andy Gilchrist closed down a 
computer of London's Regional Organiser, Matt 
Wrack, because he'd circulated the resolution 
which supported me on the FBU's internal 

Freedom: Given the FBU's current strategy, do 
you believe that cuts in jobs and services are 
now the inevitable price that will be paid for any 
extra pay that's awarded to firefighters?
Bob Pounder: Given the current strategy it's 
absolutely inevitable. Neither Gilchrist nor the 
EC are going to come away from this with any 
credibility whatsoever. A real challenge has to 
be made, and I'm looking for support and I'm 
looking for the opportunity to do that. My life's 
work within the FBU has been to defend the 
conditions of service and to fight for strong 
trades unionism Ğ defeat has never existed for 
me. I think we should go forward and organise 
and challenge the leadership, that is what I'm 
about. In Greater Manchester, we face a £5 
million cuts package. Prior to this dispute, we 
were in a strong and militant position. However, 
unless something changes, the signal will go out 
that the FBU is a spent force, and this will 
strengthen the hand of the management to 
implement cuts, which will reverberate 
throughout every brigade in the country.

The suspension of Bob Pounder from his post as 
Manchester County Brigade Secretary raises 
serious questions about the meaning of 
democracy and freedom of speech within the 
FBU. Equally concerning are the allegations that 
the FBU leadership have sought to stop his 
suspension being discussed at Branch, Brigade 
and Regional Committees.
No doubt some people within the union will say 
his suspension was justified because he went 
public with his criticism of the leadership, and at 
a particularly difficult time. But can it be right 
that an official or member of a union should be 
suspended because he's dared to condemn the 
willingness of the leadership to abandon union 
policy in favour of binding arbitration through 
ACAS? Some might see this as a way of silencing 
people within the FBU, and an attack on their 
democratic rights as members. In either case, 
suspending people for their comments, however 
critical, is no way of resolving questions of policy 
within the union.
Derek Pattison

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