Around Britain: what firefighters are thinking

Submitted by AWL on 8 December, 2002 - 12:01

New talks, but is the Government listening?
Jock Munro, FBU Scotland

We have great hopes that ACAS can help sort out this dispute. But the Government has played a poor role so far and it is hard to believe it is now serious about settling the matter in any reasonable way. They want to give the FBU a good kicking. We just want a fair pay deal, one that reflects the work we do and provides a decent wage for us and our families.
The attacks on Andy Gilchrist for his speech last weekend are ridiculous. He argued against a motion arguing the political fund shouldn't automatically be given to the Labour Party. He has always argued for the fight against the right wing of the Labour Party to take place within the Labour Party - not outside it. Andy just said what millions of us are thinking - Tony Blair is not Real Labour.

Bain is going to come up with a new report for the talks with ACAS. How useful that will be speaks for itself - it will be a report thrown together in a couple of days. This cannot make any of us feel very confident.

The Government's evaluation of the job done so far by the troops isn't worth the paper it's written on. For sure the troops are doing the best possible job they can do, under the circumstances. But to use the experience of one set of eight days of strike action to argue the case for modernisation is mad. It's just propaganda. The troops have been working between 70 and 96 hours a week. How long could they keep that up? What risks are they taking with their own lives and others while working such exhaustingly long shifts? The Government are being economical with the truth, so they can back up their cost cutting, job cutting, modernisation plans which will cost lives.

The membership are prepared to stick this one out. They want a decent wage and few think it is worth sacrificing jobs and conditions of work for. Settling for the Government's modernisation plans looks unlikely.

Jim Quinn, FBU Belfast
The dispute is at an impasse. The Government is the obstacle. The FBU is willing to talk. This is not a sign of weakness; it shows we're willing to resolve this pay dispute. The Government has turned it into a dispute about modernisation. Tony Blair has staked an awful lot on this dispute and he's the one who has made it political.

Members were surprised at the action being called off, but welcome mediation and dialogue. There is a whole riot of opinion about what to do next, though the mood hasn't changed. If things don't get resolved with ACAS we can and will continue to strike, because it will be the only thing left for us to do.

Dick Pearson, FBU Wales
Members in Wales are concerned that the pay claim is being watered down. We fully back the leadership and don't expect to be sold short on our demands. Over the last week firefighters have become more determined than ever about this dispute. Tony Blair has made sure of that. His statements to the press and comments in the House of Commons show him at best to be poorly briefed and at worst to be a liar.

A few years ago Tony Blair talked about reshaping and remodelling the Labour Party. When he said that, it was seen as respectable: when Andy Gilchrist says he thinks the Labour party should be reshaped and remodelled into a real labour party it's a big deal, it's a crime.

The Tories on the opposition benches would dearly love to bring the Government down, that's respectable. But when the firefighters and other workers who pay their money to Blair's New Labour so much as think about it, it's just about the worst thing that can be contemplated.

The press and the media in general have been extremely frustrating during the whole of this dispute. The stuff put out over the last few days is just another example of how biased the press are and whose side they're on.

We hope to get a decent agreement out of the ACAS talks, but it seems the Government just wants to enforce its changes. It wants to cut jobs and put the public at risk. It should be of no surprise that the firefighters oppose this. And it should be of no surprise that we want to stick it out and save the fire service from Blair's modernisation plans.

We want a pay rise that reflects the job we do, that reflects the modernisation that firefighters have brought about over the last 20 years. We shouldn't compromise on this.

Howard Western, FBU, North West Region
Generally members are in favour of talks, but somewhat sceptical about the Government's role and interference in this dispute. On the one hand we are all hoping something good will come of the talks with ACAS; on the other hand, if that means accepting Bain's interim review then we should not compromise.

I was at the meeting on Saturday in Manchester where Andy Gilchrist spoke. There were lots of firefighters and their families at the meeting, and when I spoke to some of them on Monday they said how disgraceful the papers and TV had been, demonising Andy and taking out of context what he said. For many it was the first time family had witnessed first hand what the FBU were saying and then read a completely different version in the press. Firefighters' families now realise the political role the papers and the TV are playing in this dispute.

Over the last 24 hours I've had loads of emails from members talking about tactics. They range from some calling for 16 strike days starting on 1 January to two days on, two days off. I'm passing all these suggestions on to our Regional EC member who will take them to the next Exec meeting for discussion.

We hope the talks will have a positive outcome, but if they fail because the Government doesn't want a decent settlement then we're prepared to strike on.

Jim Parrott, East Sussex FBU
There have been a few difficult meetings with the membership recently. Firefighters are not happy about cancelling industrial action. We think we're in a strong position and we should push on. We're for the exploratory talks, but feel we should be under no illusions with this Government. They're the ones who've repeatedly created problems and stopped the FBU and the employers coming to an agreement.

The problem is that the employers and the Government want to save money and cut jobs; they call it modernisation, but have no idea of the details. The Government wants to save a lot of money: they're talking of cutting 10,000 jobs. But the modernisation proposals are not about modernising the fire service, there's nothing positive in there, it's all about cutting jobs and cutting back on the service we provide to the public.

Blair says the last eight days of strikes prove that cuts can be made in the fire service. He says the troops and the police have proved this. What's he going to do once the fire fighters are back at work? Is he going to say to the troops and the police, you ran the fire service during the firefighters' strike and did your own jobs, this proves there are too many troops and too many police, there should be cuts here as well?

Andy Gilchrist has come under a lot of criticism for his comments about the Labour Party. These criticism are completely unjust. Many local Labour party members are supporting the firefighters. In Hastings three wards have met and voted motions through supporting the FBU and making donations to the strike fund; this in turn has put pressure on the local Labour MP, Michael Foster, who has changed his mind about the dispute and is now supporting us. This sort of action is going on all over the country.

We've started to win back the leadership of the trade unions with elections in Unison, PCS, Amicus and others. We need to win the Labour Party back in the same way.

Dave Cain, FBU, East Anglia
I think it was a really cynical ploy of the Government last week when they published the NHS consultation document on pay and modernisation. They were boasting about 10% over three years like this was some great offer. That's just over 3% a year. The consultation had been going on for three years and it was ready just in time for our eight days of strike. What a coincidence.

We were a little surprised by the unexpected postponement of the next eight days of strike action, but if this means we can get round the table and talk that's good news. We hope the Government can make a serious contribution to settling the dispute; it hasn't done so far. If they try it on then we'll be back on strike and they will learn that every time they try to force their proposals on us, we get more determined to win. If we have to take more strike action I'm certain the mood will be rock solid. Despite what the papers and TV tell us about the opinion polls, we know on the pickets public support is as strong as ever; we know who the public blame for this dispute.

There's lots of talk about tactics, how many days should we strike for. The point is we need a strategy to win, whatever that takes.
Partners and families have shown their full support for the action we're taking and are involved in supporting the firefighters. We are experienced enough to know we have to learn the lessons of other disputes like the miners, and the Liverpool Dockers. The National Women's Committee is setting up a Partners and Families support network to make sure that if the strike has to continue we are all working together to win.

Nick Headon, FBU Yorkshire and Humberside
We had a strike committee meeting this morning (Tuesday 3 December) and members were really surprised by the decision to call off the next eight days strike. We do not want a fudge deal. We're concerned our pay demands will be lost in the Government and employers' modernisation plans.

Some members see the move to ACAS as a backward step. It won't be if we can get a decent pay settlement out of it, but if there's a fudge it will be. Some members are concerned that it's the FBU who keep making the moves not the employers or the Government. We cancel action at the last minute in favour of talks and they come to the table empty-handed.

We have a massive mandate for strike action. Public support continues to grow, regardless of what the papers and the TV are saying. We should not settle for a fudge deal. We've been modernising for 25 years since the last strike and we have not had a pay rise to reflect this.
Personally, I think in the future we need a common movement that links together the struggles for better pay and conditions in the public sector. Working together, the public sector unions become much stronger. Many members have matured during this dispute. They learned a lot about the Government and the employers and they've learned a lot about solidarity. There is lots of scepticism about what is possible from the talks with ACAS. Members do not want to get tied into a deal that doesn't take our pay claim forward in any real sense. For the moment we have to see what comes out of the talks, but if they fail to produce any money and are all about the Government modernisation plans then we'll be back on strike very soon.

Steve Burrell FBU Surrey
Members in Surrey are just a bit sceptical about these new talks. We hope something will come of them, but the Government has messed around before and this makes us a bit cynical.

Forty-six per cent of Surrey firefighters live outside Surrey because houses are too expensive. All the travelling just adds to the working day or night. Many firefighters are on Working Families Tax Credit in order to survive. This is a dispute about pay and we should not settle for anything less than a decent pay rise that means firefighters and their families can live without having to receive benefits. We should not settle for modernisation that means job losses.

One day we're national heroes, the next day we're national villains. We just want a decent wage for ourselves and our families and the membership remain determined to get it.

Interviews by Jill Mountford

Andy Gilchrist said what millions think
Neil Thompson, FBU St Helens

Many firefighters were shocked by the decision to call off the next bout of the strike. The mood is resilient and we shouldn't be put off by Blair's war of words. We are all hopeful that the exploratory talks with ACAS will deliver a fair pay deal for the firefighters, but the Government is likely to be the obstacle to any solution - just as it has been all along. As far as we can see in Merseyside, support for our dispute is as strong as ever, from firefighters and the public. Last week an old fella came along to our picket line and gave £280 to support the strike. It was his own money. He said he knew how important this strike is. When Andy Gilchrist made his speech at the weekend at the Socialist Campaign Group conference in Manchester, he only said what millions of working class voters are thinking and saying privately.

Millions of working class people supported Labour at the last two elections only to be bitterly disappointed. Tony Blair is a Tory, his policies are Tory policies. It was Tony Blair who parachuted Shaun Woodward, the defected Tory MP, into the fifth safest Labour seat in the country at the last election.

The right-wing press and media are talking as if Andy Gilchrist has attempted mutiny by pointing out that the Labour party has been hijacked by New Labour. It was the trade unions who set the Labour Party up. The name of the party says what it is about, who it is for. It should not be a party for the bosses and the rich.

It's not the FBU which has made this a political dispute, it's the Government and it did that months ago when it stopped the draft settlement offering 16% being put to the FBU.

The Government wants to cut jobs: 10,000 jobs, Ministers have said so publicly. This means putting lives at risk. Firefighters are employed to save lives. There's no way we can be in favour of these kinds of job cuts.

The Audit Commission only recently said that the fire service was efficient and effective. Why cut a service that is working well, that's made great strides to modernise already? The only reason can be because the Government sees money and profit as the driving force. Putting people before profit is what all public services should be about.

This dispute affects the whole trade union movement
Dean Mills, FBU, South East Region

This is no longer just a firefighters' dispute, that dispute was about pay. This is now a dispute that will affect everyone, because the Government are insisting that modernisation goes ahead at any cost. They've said it will cost 10,000 firefighters jobs and that's a safety issue that affects the whole trade union movement and the public at large.

The Government has made this a political dispute on a number of occasions. Only last weekend they tried to pitch rank-and-file soldiers and sailors against the firefighters by saying all Christmas leave was cancelled. This is totally unnecessary. We have no strike action planned for the Christmas period. The Government knows this, there can be no confusion on this question. As always firefighters will be working during this time of year doing the job they are trained to do. Blair's decision to cancel the leave of the troops was political. It's the Government which has made this a political dispute.

Our members were surprised by the announcement to postpone the next eight days of strike action. But we know it's important the FBU push forward for a settlement and are seen to be doing so.

Derek Simpson backs FBU

Amicus-AEEU leader Derek Simpson has attacked the Government over its attitude to the firefighters. He told Ministers they should not "make an enemy of the firefighters when so many working people feel a common cause with them".

Simpson said: "The only people who have introduced politics into this dispute are those elements of New Labour who revile trade unions." He said the Government had failed to condemn the "excess" of employers or the suffering caused by "corporate greed and corruption".

correction
Due to an editorial error last week's article about Fire Service modernisation, which should have been attributed to Jim Quinn of Belfast FBU, was not. Apologies.

Comments

Submitted by Janine on Mon, 09/12/2002 - 22:28

Just a quick little report from here in Hackney.

This evening, we had a Tenants' and Residents' Association meeting on our estate, and invited the local FBU to send a speaker. Five firefighters from Homerton fire station Green Watch turned up in their engine! They received the unanimous and enthusiastic support of everyone present at a well-attended meeting.

Residents were quick to draw the similarities between the situation facing tenants and low-paid workers - both groups denied improvements to our living conditions by overpaid MPs, councillors and bureaucrats, treated like Oliver Twist when he asked for 'More'!

Green Watch are going to come back another time and do an estate visit, identifying potential fire risks, helping our ongoing fight to get Hackney Council to improve the estate. Meanwhile, we are going to write them a letter of support, put their publicity around the estate, and do a door-to-door collection for the strike fund in the run-up to Christmas.

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