After two extremely solid eight-hour strikes on 23 October 23 and November 1, London firefighters have stepped up their campaign against mass sackings by announcing a 47-hour strike over Bonfire Night, the busiest night of the year for firefighters.
A barrage of press hostility has inevitably followed, but the belligerence of London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) bosses has left the FBU with little choice but to strike on over the period when they will have the most impact. The vitriolic media reaction is a grim reminder of the role that the right-wing press will play in any significant industrial dispute; a particularly noxious cartoon in the Metro has a firefighter holding a strike placard shouting “right lads — down table tennis bats.”
The hypocrisy of a press that can hail firefighters as heroes around tragedies like the 7/7 bombings but which will openly label them lazy and selfish when they attempt to defend their jobs is grotesque. The lesson for other striking workers is that they must rely on their own literature and propaganda to win support from the public.
LFEPA chief Brian Coleman says he could rebuild a fire service from scratch based on 2,000 workers who he expects to scab and eventually sign new contracts (with worse terms), plus new recruits. The fact that he is prepared to sack thousands of workers in this way simply for opposing his gun-to-the-head negotiating style is a very clear indication of what he represents politically.
The rhetoric from LFEPA management is that dispute is now about “management’s right to manage.” From their point of view, they are entirely correct; in provoking this dispute, they are asserting their “right” not simply to manage but to rule by diktat. By resisting them, firefighters are asserting the rights of workers to have a say in what goes on in their workplaces. Every industrial dispute contains, if only on an elemental level, a challenge to the “right” of the ruling-class to rule. In a dispute like this, that challenge can become more prominent.
London FBU official Paul Embery said, “Brian Coleman, Ron Dobson and their mates at AssetCo thought they were going to have it their own way on Saturday. They must have realised how wrong they were at about one minute past ten. What we saw was an unbelievable show of strength from FBU members across the capital. There were solid picket lines and demonstrations, real unity of purpose and superb organisation. Strikebreakers turned away from fire stations and instead chose to respond to calls from various locations in the back streets of London. The brigade was in a state of near-anarchy. Members did their union proud.
“It was truly the best of days and the worst of days. The best because we saw FBU members at their best — loyal, principled and resilient in defence of their jobs and service. And the worst because none of us likes to take strike action, and neither do we like to see the brigade’s reputation dragged through the mud in the way it was on Saturday.”
A firefighter at a South London station said “this is just the thin end of the wedge. If management get away with negotiating like this, we’ll see appliances removed and station closures next. We don’t want to be on strike but we’ve got to stand up to them.”
“This strike is about standing up to management bullying”
By an East London firefighter
The strike at this station is solid. I don’t know of anyone who’s gone into work today. Our plan is to picket here for a while, and then some of us will be going to the rally in town while others will go to stations where we’ve heard AssetCo will be trying to operate out of.
This dispute is about the threat of sackings. If management withdrew that threat, we wouldn’t be on strike right now. It’s as simple as that. When people talk about the risk created by us taking this action, they forget that we’ve got friends and family in London too. We’re Londoners ourselves. So this isn’t something we’re doing lightly, but it is something we feel like we have to do.
We’ve seen Brian Coleman’s comments in the press about feeling “relaxed” at the prospect of having to sack thousands of firefighters; no-one wants to hear that sort of thing but it’s not surprising. That’s obviously something he feels like he needs to say to strengthen his position in the dispute.
There is an ongoing campaign of victimisation and bullying from management against firefighters. Members have already had their pay docked on trumped-up technicalities; that’s all about intimidating people who’re involved in a dispute. Fundamentally our managers are trying to bully us; this strike is about standing up to that bullying.
Solid at Tooting
By Maggie Bremner
I went to the Tooting Fire Station picket where scab appliances were going to be based. The firefighters had successfully prevented any scab appliance from parking up there. As far as they were aware the scab appliances were parked around London.
They all seemed hopeful that management would return to the table as they felt they had been successful with organising against the scabs but at the same time were planning the next strike day.
They reported that the scab crew were barely trained and would be unable to deal with rescue. These are people who were recruited and trained as standbys for any major emergency but it was reported that basically bosses had grabbed a lot of migrant workers out of job centres who are being exploited and put at risk.
One of the crew said “Any blood is on the management’s hands, they know what to do to end this”.
“Brian Coleman wants a privatised service”
By a striking firefighter
We are not going to be bullied and dictated to by our management. Coleman is a despicable character; he’s the worst kind of arrogant and smug politician.
Matt Wrack challenged him live on the radio about the Section 188s; he said clearly that if Coleman lifted the threat of sackings, the strike would be off. Coleman refused.
It’s very clear that his end-goal is a privatised fire service. His relationship with AssetCo makes that clear; he’s always getting little hand-outs and enjoying corporate hospitality from them. He wants them to come in and run the fire service.
I think management are rattled. In interviews since the strikes began Coleman has sounded less confident and relaxed to me.
When the Bonfire Night strikes were first called I think some of us were a bit uneasy, but we’re past that now. You have to expect that kind of thing from the Sun and the Daily Mail. We’ve got to stand up and fight.
The strikers here told us: "We were called upstairs for a meeting by our senior officers a couple of weeks ago. When we got back down Assetco had been in and taken a pump and a load of other equipment. Working class traitors is what they are [i.e. the managers]. If we were fighting the war with the Germans now, they would be the collaborators”. Another said, “This is about shift patterns and strings attached. But it’s about more than that. Everything’s getting taken over by private companies so some company owner can make a few bob while we lose our services. The system’s not right.”
Managers and scabs use violence
By Ira Berkovic
The FBU has denounced the “shocking violence” directed towards pickets, after three strikers were injured during clashes with scabs. In all three cases, workers were hit by vehicle being driven by scabs despite the drivers in each case having ample opportunity to stop.
In Croydon, a car driven by a non-union manager ploughed into a striker, apparently deliberately. He went to hospital but is now at home recovering. Another striker at Southwark received injuries to his hand as he attempted to flag down a scab-driven engine to attempt to talk to those driving it. At the same station, an FBU Executive member was nearly crushed as an engine drove over him. Given the huge police presence at the Southwark picket, the scab driver can hardly claim to have been intimidated.
Whether the incidents were down to incompetence or malice, they show the lengths to which management is going to break the FBU in London — either by hiring people clearly incapable of driving fire engines to do so, or by physically attacking strikers. FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said “An incredible pattern seems to be emerging. It looks as though the private company hired to do our work has instructed its drivers to drive fast through picket lines. We ended the day in the extraordinary situation where the police had to protect striking firefighters from recklessly speeding vehicles which were driven by those paid to break the strike.”