The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) met in Blackpool last week for what (with one exception) was a fairly quiescent special conference, with the union’s Executive Council carrying all the motions it proposed.
Delegates discussed the continued loss of frontline firefighter jobs – over a thousand a year — and the impact these would have on emergency fire cover in local communities. There are a number of local disputes brewing over cuts. The union announced dates for five strikes in Essex, starting from 28 June in a long-running dispute about cuts to the service.
The threat from privatisation and “mutuals” was also debated. Parts of the fire service, such as the London control room and its fire appliances have already been privatised.
But profiteers are circling for the Fire Service College and setting up mutuals to fragment the service in Humberside and Cleveland. The union is launching a campaign to defend a publicly owned and democratically controlled fire service.
Pay and pensions were also debated. Fire service employers have refused to make a pay offer in recent years, effectively imposing the pay freeze. The FBU is slightly out of synch with other unions on pensions, having had smaller contribution increases in April and with still-ongoing negotiations around the final scheme, which have not finished.
The conference voted for national strike action on both issues if acceptable settlements were not reached, but did not set dates for action, which some brigades pushed for.
The conference had one international debate, on whether to sever ties with the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut, arising from last year’s conference. Delegates voted narrowly for the executive’s recommendation to continue to critically engage with Histadrut, which includes Israeli firefighters. The resolution also endorsed a policy of two states for two peoples, which the FBU has backed before. Clearly this is a victory for class politics and consistent democracy over the anti-Jewish revanchism of the boycotters.
The most polarised debate concerned internal union reorganisation.
The FBU has been squeezed by falling membership, although its density remains high. The executive proposed reducing employed staff, facility time and other measures mainly affecting the top bureaucracy of the union.
This included removing the women, black and LGBT reps from the executive. Whilst the changes do reduce equality voices on the top table and votes in regional and brigade committees,they do not affect equality committees, schools or other activities.
The conference voted for the measures to ensure the FBU survives as an independent, industrial union. Some delegates argued that the changes damaged the union’s democracy and equality representation.