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(en) [prol-position] fire fighters in britain

From laskalinkas <laskalinkas@yahoo.de>
Date Thu, 5 Dec 2002 15:00:18 -0500 (EST)

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

interview/leaflet on the fire fighters' strike in britain
A summary of an interview we have made end of November 2002 with a
firefighter from Belfast who is also a representative of the FBU (Fire
Brigade Union) and the link to a leaflet of the London-based group "no war
but the class war" on the strike.

For more click here:


The fire-fighters are fighting for a 40% pay increase, from £21,00
to 30,000 per year. The ballot was 9 to 1 in favour of strike action,
with an 84 % turnout. The Northern Ireland ballot was 97 % in
favour of strike action. "This is the biggest national vote, in any
union, for strike action since the trade union balloting laws were
put in place" [FBU]. The strike includes all workers of the fire
service, such as control room staff and most of the 'retained
firefighters'. The only other firefighters strike which was in 1977
and went on for nine weeks, was undermined by the union
leaders and TUC and ultimately defeated. Only the firefighters
were on strike, not the support staff.


The government headed Bain inquiry of the fire services, due out
in December, is all about 'modernisation' and above all
'flexibility', including: overtime rules, joint control rooms and
merging with the ambulance service (i.e. cutbacks), new shift
systems, rank structures and work conditions, as well as the 'role
and philosophy of the fire service'. Several things are at stake

   Many firefighters have second jobs - forced overtime could
   jeopardise this.
   In the US the fire service is also used as a paramedic service,
   initially responding to all calls. The refusal of UK fire-fighters
   to carry defibrillators is an attempt to prevent the
   intensification of work, i.e. doing two jobs at once. This
   would also intensify the ambulance staff's work by running a
   bare minimum staff.
   This could pave the way for worsening of conditions and
   casualisation or outsourcing of parts of the service (e.g. the
   control rooms to the ambulance control rooms). · Firefighters
   could be on call after the end of a normal shift, i.e. working
   too many hours in one day.
   New part-time staff coming in with lower wages and worse
   conditions. This could include women workers.
   Under this review any pay rise is linked to a review of the
   work contracts.

Breaking down the walls between us

When a part of this whole society stops playing its role it is easy
to see how interconnected society is. Some sectors have the
ability to affect the smooth running of the whole economy. The
firefighters (along with e.g. transport workers) are one of these
sectors. The real, practical implications of the safety aspects of
the firefighters' strike mean a knock-on effect for many
workplaces, without them having to break the law of no
'secondary action'. People can turn up at their workplace but
refuse to enter unsafe buildings, carry out tasks etc. The current
health and safety laws put the onus on the worker to look out for
potential hazards, and for employers to do health and safety
assessments. If every group of workers who faced such risks
walked out - as they are entitled to under the law - then key
sections of the economy would grind to a halt.

   The TUC are advising unions to ask employers to carry out
   health and safety risk assessments for the strike days. This is
   a legal way of supporting the fire fighters.
   The tube workers will shut 19 tube stations.
   The Fire Service College at Moreton in the Marsh have
   refused to provide training for military personnel for the
   The rail unions are stating that the working conditions will be
   unsafe to work in.
   Schools are worried about arson attacks at night. The
   government recommended they employ night security
   guards, but won't give them any extra money to do so.
   "Many colleges have tower blocks. Evacuation procedures for
   wheelchair users above the second floor are to put them in a
   refuge area and wait for a fire appliance with a long-reach
   arm. The Green Goddesses will not be able to get them out.
   That means those buildings are unsafe during a fire brigade's
   strike." said Paul Mackney, general secretary, NATFE.

There is potential for spreading and extending the discontent into
action. If real links were made between these groups and action
was co-ordinated, the whole would be much greater than the
sum of the parts.

The other way round there are examples of firefighters
showing class solidarity. For example: They refused to put
out burning barricades on the miners picket lines during the
'84-5 strike; they have refused to break open squats for the
police; they have refused to fit riot barriers to their fire
engines before certain incidents of planned civil

The public sector and the government

Anti-government feeling is growing: there is massive discontent
and strikes breaking out in all areas of the public sector and there
is opposition to the war with Iraq. In just two months we have
seen industrial action by teachers, rail workers, tube workers, law
court workers, airport staff and refuse collectors. When 32 tube
drivers went on unofficial strike in Glasgow on 6 November, they
were sacked immediately because "Strathclyde Passenger
Transport will not tolerate such militant behaviour", showing a
certain fear of the rise of militancy. If the firefighters win this,
then a wave of strong public sector strikes could be expected.
The firefighters are a sign that workers can challenge the state,
and/or their employer. They are in a strong position as an
essential service and their struggle can easily spread. The
government need to break this strike as a symbol of their own
strength and determination.

The public services are a battleground at the moment and the
firefighters still have traditional long-term work contracts with
relatively good conditions. The Glasgow tube drivers have been
re-instated with worse work conditions than they had before the

The government needs to keep public sector wages down, partly
to keep a lid on costs, partly because it needs to make its current
PFI deals attractive to business. It is now becoming harder and
harder for business to make money, so it looks for new areas of
potential business and it finds the 'public' sector. The
government's PFI deals will look less attractive if the bidding firm
has to take on a higher wage bill and a militant workforce. What
the firefighters are showing is that, whoever the boss may be,
whether the state or a private firm, workers need to fight to
safeguard their interests against the logic of profit. The safety
record on the railways for both workers and passengers shows
how the logic of profit can affect our lives. This also affects
'public sector' services run according to this crazy logic, such as
the health service.

The role (play) of the unions

The Awkward Squad:
Gilchrist, the union leader, has initiated the action, and they are
being supported by other 'radical' union leaders such as Bob
Crow from the RMT (transport) and Mark Serwotka from PCS
(public service) who are demanding health and safety risk
assessments. Derek Simpson, newly elected leader of the Amicus
union, says, "We will encourage any groups of workers whose
safety is legitimately compromised by lack of fire cover to leave
work." Amicus has members in car plants, factories, chemical
works, and across industry. They are terrified of fires because the
Green Goddesses don't have breathing apparatus. Dave Prentis,
general secretary of Unison (local government, etc), issued a
circular calling on union members "not to undermine the FBU in
any way, and as a general principle... not take on work which
would in normal circumstances be done by FBU members".
Mick Rix of Aslef has said the tube, and underground networks
in Liverpool and Newcastle, will be unsafe without professional
fire cover.

The recuperation:
However, the unions stand in-between the workers anger and the
bosses and act as a buffer. The current militancy in the base of
the unions forces the leaders to be radical, to keep the support of,
and so control over, the rank and file. The unofficial action in 20
London fire stations on the day of the proposed strike showed
Gilchrist that if he made too many deals, the struggle could get
out of his hands. Now the strike has started it will take on a
momentum of its own through the experience of the firefighters
and their supporters.

The FBU leadership have to make compromising deals and
postpone action when negotiating with the government in order
to maintain their own role as mediator, and therefore their own
union jobs and the whole existence of the unions. If workers just
took action themselves the legitimacy and existence of the
unions would be threatened. They play the game with the bosses,
as much as try to 'lead' the workers. This has lead to the
recuperation of workers' dissatisfaction into union-boss deals
over and over again in recent years, or 'selling out'. The basic
contradiction of exploitation is thus smoothed out and 'managed'
by the unions, but they also act as a focus point for struggle. This
contradictory position can lead to the recuperation of anger into
smoother exploitation or to wildcat strikes and workers' self-

The army

The army and their totally inadequate 'Green Goddesses' will be
used to provide (very) basic fire cover, meaning the government
can "morally" hold out longer before making concessions to the
firefighters demands. The government is using one set of state
employed workers to undermine the struggle of another set. They
can issue order to the army, without fear of refusal. The
government is playing their trump card, and hoping to increase
the popularity of the army. After the army doing fire duty in 1977
an army officer claimed: "We have got closer to the trust of the
public. If it came to tanker drivers striking or anything else like
that, we would feel far more confident about our arrangements."
The army will be fighting the external and internal war. By
forcing the government to use the army to fire-fight at home they
are also helping in sabotaging the war effort. There is currently a
Queens Order to call up or retain the reserve army, essentially
putting the TA on standby. They are seriously worried that they
have a lack of soldiers for the pending war. The Financial Times
said: "Another concern is that a prolonged strike could overlap
into the military build-up for a war with a Iraq and lead to
firefighters securing a higher pay deal as a result. Senior officers
are worried this would highlight the pay gap with the armed
forces and could lead to soldiers resigning, as occurred during the
last firefighters' strike 25 years ago."

The govenment may order the release of the fire engines for use
by the army. In France the firefighters occupied their own fire
station and when the police came to evict them, the firefighters
turned thier hoses on them. We use and maintain machinary
every day at work, but are then told it is not 'ours'. We can take
over this machinary and use it for ourselves. For our struggle,
and to meet our needs. What are a private leasing company going
to do with a load of fire engines anyway, other then have them
used by firefighters!

You can still be done for inciting the Army to refuse orders - so
the fire-fighters leaflet to the army in 1977 had to be very
carefully worded: "Would it surprise you to learn that 340 firemen
are seriously injured on duty every year, compared with 384
soldiers in Northern Ireland? Have you heard that a fireman's real
wage, taking in inflation, has fallen 20 percent in the last four
years? Do you realise that the majority of firemen would support
higher wages for soldiers, and for that matter for every underpaid
worker? "After reading this do you think it would be in the public
interest (a) for the government to continue using you to do
firemen's work? (b) for it to settle with the firemen?"

The fire last time

"Four FBU members at the Bethnal Green Fire Station
(including a union representative) told us in 1982: "Bringing the
troops in was just a publicity exercise, an enormous con-trick on
the public just to reassure the patient that he wasn't dying. The
Green Goddesses were useless. They had no equipment and no
training. The government, the army and the public have no
conception of what firefighting involves. There was no fire cover,
it was purely cosmetic. It prolonged the strike; it would have been
cheaper to give us the money, but Callaghan was determined to
break the strike. We weren't allowed to speak to the troops,
couldn't get near them. I wouldn't vote Labour again. Callaghan
destroyed all his support. As a member of the public I'm glad they
used the army. As a fireman I'm not - my hands were tied; it put
the whole public in danger. They weren't being used as fire cover,
they were there to break our strike. Some of them were just kids;
they could have died. They're still just cannon fodder. That's a
measure of the government's determination: they would let
people die. I'm less dedicated now, I won't risk my life any more.
If people are involved, or if it's someone's home, OK. But I'm not
going to die saving property."

>From "Troops in Strikes" by Steve Peak.

Fire our spirits

For any strike or struggle to succeed it needs to overcome its own
boundaries of one workplace, employer or issue. It is then that
the division imposed on us can be broken down, that new ways of
running things for ourselves can be found, and we can begin to
work together for the good of all. At the moment our connection
is mediated through getting our wages, to then go and buy back
what we made or did. It is us who are making the things that we
need and providing the services in our everyday work. When we
realise this basic connection in common struggle, then
fundamental changes to the 'work for money, money for things'
(or wage slavery) society can be made!

The firefighters meet a real social need. Workers in this situation
are often squeezed because they are reluctant to cause the effects
a strike would have. The government uses this against them, up
to the point where they are pushed to make hard choices. A total
strike is one of the most powerful weapons we have. But there
are other methods of struggle: on one of the days the strike wall
called off , the fire fighters in some 20 stations in London took
unofficail '999 calls only' action. Busdrivers have driven busses,
but refused to take fares. These examples show people
attempting to use their activity as a way of meeting each other's
needs, rather than working according to the logic of profit.

Many people die of 'capitalism' all the time - of poverty, industrial
deaths, war etc. The class struggle is the only way to bring down
capitalism and thereby prevent these deaths. Many accidents are
as a result of the drive for profit, meaning that work is done too
fast, safety procedures are by-passed, corners are cut and
equipment is dangerous.

All society should and can be organised to meet human needs,
and not according to the logic of profit. Making the things we
want and providing the services we want can be agreed together.
Currently, it is mediated through the bosses and governments
(and the markets they attempt to manipulate) deciding what
'jobs' are worth what amount of 'money'.

We want to live in a human community where the response to
accidents and disasters are not rationalised, reduced and
squeezed so the consequences are not so devastating. For a world
organised for the good of all, without money and wage work.

No War but the Class War

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