By Jill Mountford
"Get the Braziers Ready", urges the headline of a recent letter sent out to Fire Brigades Union members from their London regional office.
London and Merseyside are among some of the regions that have rejected Professor Frank Burchill's proposals on the long-running pay dispute. Yet, on the eve of the National Executive meeting in Sheffield (15 March), FBU activists around the country say it's too close to call as to whether Burchill's proposals will be voted down at the Executive.
At the last recall conference, in Brighton in mid-April, the FBU leadership recommended members vote in favour of Burchill's proposals.
The official strike bulletin of the London Region, FBU Organiser, has argued that "Burchill simply repeats and rehashes the employers' offer which the FBU membership and recall conference have already declared unacceptable Burchill's proposals are 'a cuts and pay package' whereby pay rises beyond the initial 4% are dependent on sufficient savings being made."
Moreover, unlike the leadership, many ordinary FBU members recognise that Burchill is not making an offer, and that in fact his proposals have been repeatedly rejected by the fire service bosses.
But if Burchill is rejected, many FBU activists expect the union Executive to find yet another "alternative offer" up their collective sleeve. Something that's been cooked up in the backroom between the FBU leadership, the employers and Prescott.
The FBU leadership met on 6 May with the Local Government Association and the Convention of Scottish Authorities, and again later that week for talks with the employers, claiming "constructive and useful discussions". All of which does seem to point towards another offer being put to the members and strike action being once more postponed.
Linda Smith of the London Region FBU says: "Taking strike action around a set of concrete demands, moving on from £30k, but for no compromise on conditions, is the only way forward".
The London Region has a resolution on the table. It calls for:
* complete parity for control and retained staff;
* a guarantee of the continuation of the 15 years long service pay agreement;
* a fully detailed and explained pay formula linked to the Association of Professional and Technical Staff pay scales;
* nationally negotiated conditions of service;
* continuation of the existing disputes procedure;
* opposition to prearranged overtime;
* pay rises not to be dependent on savings achieved through cuts.
The West Midlands region has put a motion to the Executive calling for weekly nine hour strikes. These strikes would take place on the day shift. All watches would be involved on a rota basis. They would give maximum visibility of the strike to the general public.
An active FBU member in the West Midlands region said: "We have to rebuild the confidence of the membership. We need to get it back to the level we had last year when we balloted for strike action and won an astounding victory of nine to one in favour of striking for better pay.
"Given all the messing around and the grand gestures that have rarely amounted to anything, we now have to start it all up again.
"I know members are willing, they know there's no real choice, but they've lost some confidence in the leadership. It can be rebuilt, but we can't afford any more messing about. We have to show the employers and the Government that we mean business or else they won't take us seriously."
region is solid in its support for eight-day strikes. Ian Foulkes, Merseyside Chair, says: "15 strike days over seven months sends out all the wrong signals. In our dispute in Merseyside, two years ago, we went on strike for 11 days and won.
"The irony is, Burchill's proposals contain a lot of what we fought against and defeated two years ago. If we settle for some sort of compromise between Burchill's proposals and what the employers are offering, it won't just have a bad effect on the FBU membership, it will have a bad effect on the whole of the trade union membership. We should not do this."
Another FBU member, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "There's been a lot of criticism of the Executive and Gilchrist, some of it justified. They did not take their own warnings seriously. Two years ago they warned us attacks were going to happen, yet look at the state we're in now. The membership voted overwhelmingly for strike action - nine to one - last September, but in reality we were ill-prepared for the effects of striking and how long the battle was likely to go on for."
If the rumours are right, and the Executive fail to set new strike days from their meeting, instead putting another fudged offer to the membership, yet more momentum will be lost.
Many recognise and understand the leadership's desire to find a way out of the impasse that now exists. But it's hard to find anyone who is prepared to lose so badly on the question of conditions for something like a guaranteed 4% pay rise. The rank and file may have lost confidence over the past months, but it's hardly terminal. Many believe the enthusiasm can be revived to the September/October levels of last year if there is some positive national leadership.
Trade unionists and labour movement activists should now prepare to reactivate FBU strike support groups should the leadership set new strike dates.
Imposition? It's time for some uproar!
John Prescott introduced the Second Reading of his Fire Services Bill in the House of Commons on 8 May.
If the Bill becomes law it will give Prescott sweeping powers to change firefighters' pay and conditions, and dispose of fire service property as he chooses.
In short, it would be a tyrannical attack on trade unions' powers to defend their members.
As a Bill it is an attempt to intimidate the firefighters into giving up their fight for decent pay and against cuts in the service.
Fifty nine MPs, including 27 Labour MPs, voted against the Bill. The response of trade union leaders - including Andy Gilchrist - so far has been 'measured'.
The response of rank-and-file trade unionists should be uproar!