London’s firefighters will walk out of work on Saturday 23 October and Monday 1 November after they voted overwhelmingly for strike action — 79% in favour on a 79% turnout.
The strike is part of an ongoing dispute over negotiations around shift-patterns, which London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) bosses recently broke off, deciding instead to threaten every single firefighter in London with dismissal if they refuse to sign contracts on new — and worse — terms. LFEPA’s action comes against the backdrop of increasing willingness by public sector bosses to use mass sackings — or the threat of them — to undermine collective bargaining agreements and break trade union power.
A clear indication of the political resolve with which LFEPA are prepared to take on firefighters was given by senior LFEPA boss Brian Coleman when he said, in an interview with the Guardian, that he was prepared to “do a Ronald Reagan.” He was referring to Reagan’s brutal smashing of a 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike in which the American president sacked over 11,000 strikers and banned them from federal service for life. Coleman says that his words were “as good as a pledge” to sack firefighters and that he was “relaxed” about having to do it.
Brian Coleman is a hardline Tory, implicated in expenses scandals and notable for fronting the plan for local government outsourcing and privatisation in Barnet. That such a man would want to take on and potentially smash a relatively well-organised and left-led union is not surprising.
But the dispute does not simply expose Coleman but, beyond him, exposes the puddle-shallow nature of “democracy” in this country. Our democracy increasingly begins and ends with the right to vote for inadequate candidates in all-too-infrequent national and local government elections; our working lives, the sphere in which most of us spend the majority of our time, are entirely walled-off from any kind of democratic control. If our boss wants to do something, he gets his way. If we don’t like it, we get the sack. That is the model of industrial relations we can expect to see in Cameron’s Britain.
It is because of the centrality of that model — based on the dictatorship of capital — that the entire workers’ movement must take up the firefighters’ struggle as their own. Already, local government workers in Sheffield, Birmingham, Neath and Port Talbot, Walsall and Croydon are facing similar struggles. On London Underground, too, the numbers of jobs that bosses plan to slash seem to increase by the week.
It’s because of the increasingly general nature of these attacks that the FBU’s decision not to coordinate action with the next tube workers’ strike is unfortunate.
Firefighters will strike for eight hours from 10am on 1 November, with the next tube strike beginning at 16:59 on Tuesday 2 November.
The “clever” explanation is that this timing will maximise impact, with Tube drivers’ refusal to work on grounds of safety (no fire cover) during FBU action feeding into the strike on 2 November. Tube bosses will be able unable to get services back to normal in the “gap”. But wouldn’t join picket lines and demonstrations be better?
Socialists should support FBU picket lines on 23 October and 1 November and mobilise in force for the joint FBU, RMT, NUT and PCS anti-cuts demonstration in central London on Saturday 23 October. If Coleman and LFEPA win, we could be facing a situation where every trade-union negotiation is conducted with a gun pointed at our heads. We cannot allow that to happen.