FBU conference took place last week 11-15 May, one of the first union conferences since the general election. Discussion revolved around the incoming Tory government and the likely onslaught firefighters and other workers will face in the coming period.
The Tories’ new raft of anti-union laws represent a major class-wide attack. The FBU will be at the forefront of these restrictions, not least because of the 50+ strikes it has organised on pensions, shifts and cuts over the last five years. The FBU was criticised by the Carr review, set up originally to investigate Unite’s tactics. One of the Tories’ specific stipulations is that 40% of those eligible have to have voted ‘Yes’ for a legal ballot in certain industries, including fire. Although the FBU has met this threshold in recent ballots, other attacks on check off and facility time will undoubtedly impact on collective action.
The conference heard speeches from Frances O’Grady, who pledged to “box clever” against the new government without even the promise of any mobilisations. It heard from Ian Lavery, who argued for an orientation to the Labour Party, without declaring who to back in the leadership election. Although there was much talk of fighting back, few concrete strategies were offered to delegates. The best fringe meeting heard from Dave Smith and Bob Carnegie on blacklisting and worker organising, with many delegates impressed by the speakers’ knowledge and tactical nous.
The conference passed an important emergency resolution in solidarity with homeless activists in Merseyside. It condemned those fire service personnel, who were not FBU members, who helped evict activists from an occupied bank. Firefighters pledged to refuse to carry out such duties if instructed in other brigades. This tied in well with the guest speaker from Spain, Roberto Rivas, who had refused to help evict tenants two years ago.
The controversial debates were mostly specific to the fire and rescue service. The executive council won them all. The closest vote was over whether to get involved in fitness research, with some sectional delegates arguing fitness tests were discriminatory. Actually, the tests are fire-specific, practical tasks that are vital to both firefighter safety and to the pension scheme. The FBU rescinded its longstanding boycott of responding to medical incidents, which is already done by many fire and rescue services, and seek a national agreement instead. A one-sided motion on the Odessa massacre – in reality a SARU, pro-Putin apologist resolution – was heavily defeated.
The motions on Labour Party affiliation was withdrawn, so no debate took place on this question. The executive was opposing it, so it would in all likelihood have fallen. The TUSC fringe meeting was a disappointing act of self-delusion, particularly the way all the votes from Westminster and the local elections were aggregated – no doubt to disguise the overall poor showing (half the votes gained in 2001 by the Socialist Alliance, despite more candidates). Dave Nellist failed to answer the central problems with TUSC – its Labour Mark II politics, its undemocratic structure (complete with RMT veto and no accountable structures) and its evasion of the Labour-union link.
Overall, the mood was sober but resolute, with a layer of new reps and strong commitment to carry the fight to the new government.