BY PAUL CLARKE
LONDON — Britain's firefighters are locked in a bitter battle over pay and conditions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's right-wing New Labour government. The struggle has been dubbed by some commentators "Blair's miners' strike" — a reference to the 1984-85 battle between the coal miners and Conservative Party PM Margaret Thatcher.
The firefighters' campaign of strike action and the Blair government's response to it illustrate key facets of New Labour's project for public services, as well as the new mood of militancy among young workers throughout the public sector.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) finished an eight-day strike on November 29, which followed a two-day strike two weeks earlier. A further eight-day strike, scheduled to begin on December 4, has been postponed until December 16 to allow the resumption of talks.
Public support for the firefighters has been high, to the chagrin of the Blairites. Union support has been 100%, including from distinctly non-militant union leaders. While the government mobilised thousands of soldiers, with their 40-year-old "Green Goddess" fire tenders, inevitably they have been unable to provide the skill necessary to deal with many fires and other emergencies.
Despite dire predictions from government ministers that strikes were putting lives at risk, no fire deaths have so far been blamed on the strike. Repeatedly firefighters have left their picket lines to attend incidents where lives were at risk. On the first night of strike, firefighters in Manchester, in full view of TV cameras, rushed into a burning fireworks depot to save a trapped worker.
Having saved him and ensured no-one was left inside, they went back to the picket lines and left the task of trying to save the spectacularly exploding building to soldiers. Firefighters have attended dozens of car accidents where soldiers and police lacked the expertise and equipment to rescue trapped drivers and passengers. All this has helped to sway public opinion in the firefighters' direction.
The firefighters' strike action was due to start in October but was postponed to allow talks over their pay claim of £30,000 a year. Currently, firefighters earn around £21,000 a year, a bit more in London. If that seems a reasonable wage to Australian workers, it has to be set against the tremendously high prices in Britain, especially the high cost of food and transport and the astronomic cost of housing.
Firefighters built their campaign for a living wage over the summer with dozens of rallies and marches, around the slogan cribbed from an advertising campaign: "Because we're worth it".
Few of today's firefighters, who usually retire in their early 50s, remember the last strike in 1977. But the FBU has remained one of Britain's most left-wing and militant unions.
The firefighters' employers are the local authorities. But they are dependent on the national government for a significant part of their finances, and need a government subsidy for a substantial pay increase. On the eve of the first strike, the government produced a bombshell, in the form of the report from an "independent commission" — with which the FBU had refused to collaborate — that said the firefighters could have a significant pay increase in return for "modernisation". It is on this issue that the government has attempted to take the offensive against the FBU.
"Modernisation" turns out to be a code word for deep cuts and a complete reworking of firefighters' working conditions. Two key issues are a revision of working hours and multi-skilling among the emergency services. For example, the government has suggested that firefighters train to use defibrillators to rescue people with heart attacks.
This proposal turned out to be anachronistic, since all fire tenders already carry defibrillators and firefighters regularly use them on people with heart difficulties at emergencies they attend.
But the government proposal on this is very different; they are proposing that firefighters train as all-round paramedics to attend all kinds of medical emergencies which have nothing to do with fires or other major accidents. In other words, if you collapse with a heart attack, maybe you will be sent an ambulance or maybe a fire tender will turn up.
Emergencies will be dealt with by joint control centres, in which paramedics and firefighters will overlap in their duties. The obvious aim of this is to make fewer ambulances and fire tenders go further. Indeed, the government is explicit about this.
This hare-brained scheme only works if the government can break the present working pattern of firefighter teams ("watches"). Typically, firefighters work two nine-hour day shifts and two 15-hour night shifts and then have four days off. This averages out at 42 hours a week. When not fighting fires, firefighters go through regular training, detailed equipment checks, maintenance and elaborate practice routines. But some of their time is spent in their stations waiting for emergencies.
Until now, nobody has questioned this, since it seems to have the obvious advantage of allowing firefighters to be on call to rapidly attend emergencies. Indeed, response times are very rapid, in contrast to the utterly underfunded and under-resourced ambulance service, in which response times are dire.
The breaking of the firefighters' traditional shift patterns would eliminate what "efficiency" experts regard as "dead time" by ensuring that firefighters were always attending some kind of emergency. It would also result in more dead people as firefighters become unavailable to rapidly attend fires and major disasters.
Also thrown at the firefighters is the accusation that some of them have second jobs during their days off. For a small minority, this is true, but it is a reflection of the need to boost their incomes, especially for those who are the main breadwinner in a family with children.
On the eve of the second strike, local government employers met with FBU leaders all night to try to reach a settlement, and worked out a joint position. At 7am (phoning from his bed, which he refused to leave), deputy prime minister John Prescott (with a salary of £124,000 a year, two houses and two Jaguars) told the employers the government would not fund the deal and they could not agree it. Even some Conservatives attacked the government's intransigence.
Prescott followed this up by telling the House of Commons that, in the next five years, 11,000 firefighters were due to retire and this could provide some necessary savings. As FBU leader Andy Gilchrist put it, the cat was now out of the bag. Modernisation meant job losses and longer working hours.
The scene is now set for a long and bitter dispute which will probably go into the new year. For the Blairites, it is a stand against public sector union militancy. They fear that giving in to the FBU will create a precedent breach which other public sector workers will follow.
There have already been strikes this year among London teachers and other local authority workers over pay, and by London's train workers. The train workers' main union, the Railways, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), led by militant left-winger Bob Crowe, has repeatedly won high wage increases through its ability to instantly shut down the underground network and create traffic chaos throughout London.
During the FBU strikes, 22 deep tube stations have been closed because of safety fears. Other stations have also closed because RMT members have declared them unsafe without firefighter coverage and refused to work in them. This has led to disciplinary action, which could itself result in industrial action by the RMT.
The Labour government is worried by the new union militancy. The 1990s boom has meant low unemployment and a revival of self-confidence among many young workers. It has been reflected in the victory of the left in several major unions, including those representing engineering workers, civil servants and London's railworkers. Some of Blair's most trusted union allies have been unseated.
The new mood reflects a changing of the generations; millions of workers scarred by the defeats of the Thatcher years in the 1980s are now out of the workforce, replaced by younger workers who have yet to be tested in battle. But these are green shoots of union militancy, not the full-grown beast of the 1970s and '80s.
By trying to nip these developments in the bud by taking on the firefighters and inflicting a major defeat on them, the Blair government has chosen a formidable opponent. It is an audacious move and a dangerous one. No group of workers, with the possible exception of hospital nurses, has more respect or enjoys more public support than the firefighters. No group of striking workers in the past 20 years has enjoyed such unanimous support from all wings of the trade union movement. No group of striking workers has recorded 60%-plus approval ratings for their actions in living memory.
And as if that wasn't enough for New Labour, the military top brass is getting increasingly restless about thousands of troops going round putting out fires when they should be preparing the invasion of Iraq.
Whatever the outcome, New Labour has dealt another blow to its historically privileged relations with the trade unions. It will add to the growing clamour among activists for unions to stop financing the Labour Party and to support those in elections, like the Socialist Alliance, who stand for the interests of the working class.
Symbolically, it was the FBU that two years ago was the first union to give its local branches the right to allocate local political funds away from Labour if they so wished.
From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.
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