FBU conference in Blackpool last week witnessed sharp debate over the European Union, with delegates eventually voting for a remain vote after much wrangling.
FBU’s executive council proposed a statement to the conference calling for a vote to remain. This argued that the consequences of leaving would be detrimental to firefighters: the working time directive is built into firefighters’ national pay and conditions, while retained firefighters have won gains as part-time workers in the EU, such as pensions, sick leave, holiday pay and other leave.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said it was not “our” referendum, but was taking place at the behest of wrangling among the Tories, spurred on by UKIP. He said most of the current debate involved pro-business politicians debating how best to exploit workers, whether inside or outside the EU. Wrack argued that a vote to remain must not be taken as an endorsement of the current EU, but “a recognition that the forces of labour are not in a position to replace it with something better”. He called for an independent labour movement approach, with no sharing of platforms with official campaigns. He condemned ex-TUC general secretary Brendan Barber for writing a joint letter with David Cameron supporting remain.
A Brexit motion from London moved by regional secretary Paul Embery received little support. Its supporters produced a terrible document before conference, which referred to “an explosion of cheap labour”. Numerous delegates stood up to defend migrants and to reject the false and xenophobic stereotyping of these workers. The main threat was the “take no position” view. This was not an active boycott or abstention argument, but one motivated by concerns about divisions among members such as in Scotland – reflecting a lack of confidence and political education.
West Midlands brigade chair Andy Scattergood summed up the answer when he said it was “important to get off the fence”, even if the choice was becoming a “lose/lose situation”. Wrack agreed, but said the consequences of leaving were serious for workers and that “our main enemy is here at home”, not in Brussels.
The night before Alberto Durango from the London cleaners’ union and Kieron Merritt from ″Another Europe is Possible″ comprehensively rebutted Enrico Tortolano from Trade Unions against the EU in a fringe debate. Jeremy Corbyn addressed the conference on the final day, the first Labour leader to do so in over 20 years.
Corbyn has a consistent record of support for the FBU, going back to the 1977 pay strikes, the 2002-03 dispute and the subsequent disaffiliation. He was warmly welcomed by delegates, who had agreed to reaffiliate the FBU to the Labour Party last November. The night before, a useful Momentum fringe meeting heard several delegates advocate the need for a serious organised trade union intervention into the Labour Party.
The main industrial debate concerned firefighters responding to emergency medical calls alongside (but not instead of) paramedics. Over half the brigades across the UK are engaged with trials and the union voted to extend these, to evaluate the results and use the outcome to fight for better job security and pay for firefighters.
The award for wackiest resolutions was tied. There was a motion to “condemn hypocritical propaganda”, which inadvertently boosted states such as Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela opposed to “US-NATO hegemony”. An emergency resolution on the “right to criticise” effectively denied there is a problem of anti-semitism in the labour movement. Generally there were fewer resolutions than usual, suggesting the FBU needs to renew itself at workplace and brigade level, in order to ready itself for attacks from central government and police and crime commissioners that are on the horizon.