London firefighters will vote in December on whether to accept new shift patterns as recommended by a dispute arbitration panel.
London firefighters were facing mass sackings after Section 188 notices were imposed in August. The sackings were due to begin from 18 November, but after two successful strikes and the threat of bonfire night action, London fire brigade management agreed to put back the deadline to January, improve their offer on shifts and go to arbitration.
The arbitration panel, known as RAP, produced its recommendations on 22 November. Unusually, it made two alternative proposals and said firefighters should vote on which one they want. The options are: 1. two 11-hour day shifts and two 13-hour night shifts with no strings; and 2. two 10.5 hour day shifts and two-13.5 hour night shifts, with direct standbys.
The Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) will now put the options to members, along with the chance to reject both. The union’s London regional committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend the 10.5/13.5 option, arguing that anything with a 10 in it was better for firefighters. This view was endorsed by an FBU all-reps meeting. London fire brigade management want the 11/13 option.
Both options are worked by other firefighters elsewhere in the UK and there are mixed views on them. The strings attached to 10.5/13.5 on direct standbys mean firefighters can be called the night before a shift and told to work from another station the following day, for a set payment of £35. (Currently they go to their usual station first and then get reassigned). It is not clear whether this is workable, but it might actually mean appliances go out fully crewed — a demand firefighters have long made on safety grounds.
SWP journalists and bloggers have opposed both options. But the new shifts are a compromise, foisted on the FBU by the imposition of the sacking notices and the weakness of the movement. Not every compromise is a sell out.
No firefighters lose their job or work longer hours with either shift option. The FBU believes the 10.5/13.5 is the best they are likely to get, even with more strikes. The alternative will be imposition of whatever management want — and that really would be a defeat.
The SWP says reject the options and get the strikes back on. They combine voluntarism with syndicalism — ignoring the threat of imposition and imagining that firefighters are keen for strikes on a scale that can radically change the options. They do not propose a coherent alternative strategy, preferring instead verbal radicalism.
They ignore what happened in South Yorkshire a year ago, when firefighters organised two 24-hour strikes and five 8-hour strikes, with further 8-day strikes planned. The FBU still only just managed to avoid imposition of new shifts and ended with 11-13, endorsed by a big majority.
Lenin’s Left Wing Communism (1920) is instructive: “Every proletarian has been through strikes and has experienced ‘compromises’ with the hated oppressors and exploiters, when the workers have had to return to work either without having achieved anything or else agreeing to only a partial satisfaction of their demands.
“Every proletarian... sees the difference between a compromise enforced by objective conditions (such as lack of strike funds, no outside support, starvation and exhaustion)… and, on the other hand, a compromise by traitors who try to ascribe to objective causes their self-interest (strike-breakers also enter into ‘compromises’!), their cowardice, desire to toady to the capitalists, and readiness to yield to intimidation, sometimes to persuasion, sometimes to sops, and sometimes to flattery from the capitalists.”
The FBU is not pretending the settlement is perfect. Rather it recognises the dangers of having a worse deal imposed and the limits of a prolonged battle over shifts.