By Nick Holden
The leadership of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has conceded that Paul Woolstenholmes, the National Officer suspended in a witch-hunt against those who criticised the leadership during the pay dispute, has no case to answer, and can return to work.
This is a defeat for the Gilchrist leadership. Ever since Woolstenholmes beat the sitting National Officer in an election during the dispute, the Gilchrist leadership has been running scared. It has used witch-hunts and delaying tactics to avoid being held to account by a membership increasingly angry about the collapse of the pay campaign and the surrender of a number of conditions of employment which the leadership had previously promised to defend.
During the period of Woolstenholmes’ suspension, the FBU Executive member who was leading the charge against him lost his own seat in the union’s region 7. Dave Whatton lost his seat to a grassroots rank and file activist, John Vernon, who distinguished himself at this month’s EC meeting by voting, together with London’s EC member Mick Shaw, against the leadership’s plans for further intimidation of the union rank and file.
Sadly, and in a warning to the membership, the so-called “breakaway” group on the EC, who have presented themselves as an alternative to the Gilchrist leadership, failed to do likewise.
The debate centred not on Woolstenholmes, who can return to work at FBU HQ, but on the recently-formed rank and file organisation, Grassroots FBU. The Executive Committee agreed to a proposal from Assistant General Secretary Mike Fordham which amounts to a banning of Grassroots FBU. It is less than Fordham wanted, though.
Earlier this summer, Fordham had attempted to suspend from office four London FBU activists — Andy Dark, Matt Wrack, Paul Embery and Gordon Fielden. He was blocked from doing so thanks to the FBU rulebook, which delegates the power of suspension only to the relevant regional EC member, not to national officials of the union. London regional EC member, Mick Shaw refused to suspend the four, on the grounds of them not having broken any of the union’s rules!
Instead, Fordham fell back on the idea of banning the Grassroots FBU organisation. A “dossier” was presented to the FBU Executive proving such things as “Grassroots FBU has at least two officers” and “a website”, and alleging that Grassroots FBU was “seriously considering” breaking from the FBU to form a new union. In fact, no such plans have been considered by Grassroots FBU.
The EC agreed that Grassroots FBU is “an unauthorised organisation” and that participation in the “organisational activities” of Grassroots FBU is prejudicial to the interests of the union.
Just in case this doesn’t work, the EC majority also agreed to put a rule change to the next FBU conference, which would give the General Secretary power to suspend members from office where a regional EC member refuses to do so.
In the interim, however, the election for Assistant General Secretary is getting under way, with Fordham retiring, and the leadership’s favoured replacement, John McGhee, facing a strong challenge from Matt Wrack — one of the targets of the witch-hunt!
Support for Wrack is growing. The only hope for the Gilchrist faction is that the opposition vote might be split. There was some talk of a candidate being put up by those around Red Watch, the firefighters’ bulletin initiated by the SWP, but that threat seems to be receding. More dangerous, though, is the decision of one of the so-called “breakaway” group on the EC, Dean Mills, to seek nominations for the AGS election.
Mills is not considered likely to win the election, and he did his reputation as a challenger to the leadership no help by abstaining on the crucial votes in the debate about banning Grassroots FBU. However, he is still in the race, and it could well be that he would take enough support away from Matt Wrack to leave McGhee free to take the position with a minority of votes.
Some discussion has taken place about the possibility of a deal between Wrack and Mills, on an “anyone but McGhee” basis, with possibly one of them standing down now and then having a clear run at the General Secretary election next year. There are two problems with this. First, there’s no guarantee that others on the left of the union, particularly Red Watch, would feel themselves bound to a deal done between Wrack and Mills. Second, and more importantly, the election is not just about beating John McGhee. It’s also about standing positively for a union which is democratic and combative in representing its members.
FBU activists should support Matt Wrack for Assistant General Secretary. Alongside that, they should continue to resist the witch-hunt.
Activists should also challenge the right of EC members to continue to sit on the Executive beyond their four year terms — several regions are overdue elections in which strong challenges from the rank and file were expected.