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(en) UK, AF, Organise #60 - FBU Dispute: Lions led by donkeys The Great Firefighters Strike of 2002-03

From ManchesterOldham AF <anarchist_federation@yahoo.co.uk>
Date Tue, 27 May 2003 10:49:30 +0200 (CEST)

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

> Full pdf or html version on www.af-north.org/organise.htm
By the time Organise! goes to print and this article
is read, it is possible the firefighters dispute will
have been settled, with the FBU giving enough ground
to avoid their strike being declared unlawful and the
threat of legislation to make strikes illegal in the
Fire Service. If so, the minimum that will need to
have been conceded is flexibility on overtime and
rostering, part-time working throughout the Fire
Service and the loss of thousands of jobs. A
face-saving formula (on all sides) may have been
cobbled together but it will be the ordinary
firefighter who pays the price. It is also possible
however, that it will have entered a new and more
dangerous phase. Either strikes will have intensified
and spread, perhaps while war is raging in Iraq, or
they will have been suspended, but with both sides
preparing for a second round: government will be
preparing a propaganda blitz and legislation to crush
the strike, while the FBU will try to enlist other
public sector unions and the TUC in a 'popular front'
against Blairism.

If the dispute has been settled its usual to read its
entrails to discover who won this struggle between
organized labour and the state. But with war raging or
the government in crisis, winners and losers will take
second place to more pressing issues. When the dust
has settled, at conference time, each side will no
doubt claim something. The FBU Executive will put a
brave face on the concessions they have had to make.
Tony Blair and his government of management
control-freakery will claim to have defeated the
'wreckers', the new 'enemy within. Whatever the
claims by each side, who will have won the strategic
victory that each side began to believe possible as
the strike intensified?

Some people feared the strike was lost even before it
began, back in the summer of 2002 when the government
vetoed the 16% pay offer. The FBU leadership made the
fatal mistake of allowing their negotiations to appear
on the government's radar, and as an issue of
authority and fiscal prudence, not fair pay and
sensible service improvements. No doubt the FBU
leadership expected a quick campaign and the municipal
employers to capitulate. But national, pre-announced
strikes only allowed the government to shoulder the
employers aside in defence of their carefully-nurtured
image of competence. A programme of wildcat, random,
station-by-station strikes would have put maximum
pressure on the employer at the local level while
allowing no national response. With government unable
to bear down on the strikers and the prospect of an
indefinitely sustainable dispute, the employers would
have been forced to take back the negotiations and

The biggest losers long-term will, of course, be the
rank-and-file firefighter and (less directly) all
public sector workers. The firefighters,
well-disciplined, popular and with a massive
democratic mandate were led to the picket line like
lions and staked out for the media vultures like
donkeys. In a strange reversal at the end of 2002,
while ordinary firefighters called for the 'big push'
of an all-out strike, their generals quailed, cowered
and gave in, sounding the recall by suspending the
strikes. Too late the trade union ambulance was
rushed to the field to rescue the survivors: the
battered FBU leadership and the discredited fire
authority negotiators. No doubt the leaders of the
TUC hoped to strengthen their negotiating position,
making themselves useful to the government and popular
with members and the public alike. They too are
firefighters, though of a different sort.....

But their efforts misfired: government ministers and
their fat cat advisors hated the way they 'rescued'
the firefighters just as they were closing for the
kill: public support for the strike was waning, the
army was coping and Andy Gilchrist went 'over the top'
with his "Time for Real Labour" speech. The enemy
within had blinked, and were ready to be crushed.
Then came the offer of mediation, the closing of
ranks, the critical speeches, the hints of
disaffiliation. Blair, Prescott, Blunkett and
Raynsford will not forget such disloyalty, and it will
be the ordinary worker who pays the price.

Early in 2003 a new round of strikes were threatened
and Prescott threatened to take powers to end the
dispute and enforce a settlement, effectively
nationalising the Fire Service by taking negotiating
powers away from the local employers. The FBU went
very quiet. The threat of strikes, quickly smothered
by the TUC and FBU, gave Blair his chance. How easy
it was to wrap his government in the flag and refuse
to be dictated to by unreasonable and unpatriotic
strikers. The action merely made a ban on public
sector strikes after the next election more likely.
The perception of a battle more likely to be lost than
won (despite the total solidarity and determination of
rank-and-file firefighters) was reinforced when the
16% offer over two years was scuppered in November and
when a worse deal was tabled in March, amid renewed
threats of legislation against industrial action.

Having been forced to concede the principle of a link
between 'fair pay' and modernisation, our prediction
is that the floodgates will open. Sometime soon,
perhaps this year, the government will issue its
consultation paper on the 'future' of the Fire
Service. The counter-attack will be launched. A
full-time service (preserved in London and Merseyside)
will go - with 4000 job losses - and more moderate
(and easily cowed) part-timers recruited. A Bob
Pounder, an FBU Executive Committee member, suspended
but later reinstated for speaking about the dispute
says: 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.

Some services will be ripe for privatisation: fire
safety advice perhaps, community education, control
rooms, civilian support, vehicle maintenance. The
corporations now beginning to deliver public services
across the country and for massive sums will be
licking their lips. No doubt like the railways, the
Fire Service has many stations in prime sites - 150
are targeted to go. Why buy fire engines? Let the
private sector buy them and lease them back! More
importantly, who will be able to stand against
privatisation, part-privatisation and externalisation
when the firefighters couldn't? Who can argue against
modernisation now? Expect the pace of 'partnership'
to quicken and big contracts for public sector
provision to fall into the bloated hands of the
corporate fat cats.

The screw will tighten around the firefighters: "If
you can't talk about service improvements, we can't
talk about pay". "If you won't modernize, there will
have to be job losses". As in postal sorting offices,
managers will be encouraged (that's government-speak
for strong-armed) to introduce change, there will be
financial inducements to 'pilot' new ways of working
on a service-by-service basis. If they resist
modernization, real job losses will come. They will
be forced to fight on the government's terms, not
theirs. All the dispute has done is put them in the
firing line this year. Will the firefighters be able
to resist? If a strike should develop it will be on
the battleground of service improvement (always
popular with the consumer), not fair pay or
efficiency. The moral high ground will have been lost
and the dispute, if one develops, will be fought in
the swamp of management-speak about 'performance
indicators', 'public-private' and 'output measures'.
The public gaze will falter and turn away; the dispute
will be lost.

More importantly, the Blairite modernisers will have
won a famous victory, consolidating their iron grip on
domestic policy, led by Blair's jack-booted ministers,
Nick Raynsford and John Prescott. They will have
faced down a group of workers driven to the end of
their tether and solidly militant because of it. They
will have discredited the Left at the same time as
they out-manouvered and baffled the FBU leader, Andy
Gilchrist. They will have proved that no public
service, however valued or organised, is immune from
the modernisation treatment. They will have cowed
some public sector workers. The TUC will have lost
all credit with government while gaining no credit
with ordinary workers - they played their part in
attempting to sell the firefighters a bad deal, then
running for cover. Workers will be further
demoralised, anger about pay and conditions deflated,
pay demands moderated, privatisation slowed but not
stopped. The fix will be in, and no mistake.

The big losers will be low-paid public sector workers.
Tony Blair raised the spectre of 10%, 15% or 20% pay
demands if the FBU won. If the strike is settled on
harsh terms, the campaign for a fairer share of public
sector spending is almost beaten before it can start.
3% is more likely than 15% this year. And with all
the talk of recession and economic 'hard landings',
it's likely that public sector employees will be faced
down, and accept less - or rather their leaders will.

The most heartening thing about the strike was the
sheer determination of the ordinary firefighter (and
the public support they got throughout, despite the
government and media's vicious onslaught). They
quickly realised the dangers facing them but stood
firm, and argued for all-out industrial action to
force government to negotiate sensibly and quickly.
They also fought to defend the principle that
developing public services should be a co-operative
endeavour, between those who use and who provide the
service. The service provided on Merseyside has cut
fire deaths in half by installing twice the national
average number of smoke detectors, a policy championed
by firefighters but now threatened by cuts and the
breakdown in industrial relations. At the same time,
and as a measure of just how corrupt municipal
government is, the councillors elected to the
Merseyside Fire Authority voted themselves a 50%
increase in their allowances (in line with other fire
authorities). The Chairman, Peter Corcoran (who got a
52% pay rise), said "independent assessors are saying
we should receive proper allowances for the job which
we do". A sentiment the firefighters would endorse,
since their own claim to £30k was based on an
assessment by the independent Labour Research

What lessons can we learn? Firstly that strikes are
best not led by the so-called leadership, unless
workers are prepared to compromise from the start.
Second, that once stopped, they are hard to re-start.
It is far better to change your tactic to intensify
pressure on the enemy while reducing it on your own
forces: rolling strikes and guerilla strikes cause an
image of 'chaos' and a dispute 'out of control' which
will force the bosses on the defensive. Thirdly, the
trade union leadership will always seek to compromise
at the expense of workers rather than jeopardise their
mediating role between worker and employer. Fourthly,
and most importantly, that there are no solutions
within the framework of what we call work, our working
lives - no solution to low pay, inadequate pay, unfair
pay, antisocial hours or working practices, to stress,
to alienation, to bullying or indifferent bosses.
Many trade unions were formed to enable the worker to
seize the means of production - tools, machines, the
lorries and looms, the factories and fields - from the
boss and to enable workers to organise their working
lives for themselves and for society's benefit. Now
they just sell insurance. Yet workers, and we are
workers too, put our trust in them and expect them to
deliver us from the not-so gilded cage of a working
life, a life of toil with scant reward. We must
organise as workers to take back the means of work, in
order to free ourselves from it.

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