Blair is out to crush the firefighters - Yes, it is political!

Submitted by AWL on 7 December, 2002 - 1:24

Prepare Solidarity

  • Back the FBU
  • Link the struggles
  • Solidarity is key
  • Recall TUC and Labour conferences
  • For a workers' voice in politics

"Fire Strike Crumbles" crowed the headline of that repugnant, anti-working class rag, the Sun "newspaper", on 3 December, the day after the Fire Brigades Union suspended their latest eight day strike action.

The Sun, scum floating on the top of a cess-pit, always makes its it's own distinctive contribution to public affairs. And the firefighters dispute has proved to be no exception.

The press as a whole, and the Sun in particular, is a powerful weapon for the bosses and the bosses's government in the battles like those the Government picked with the firefighters.

Derek Simpson, General Secretary of AMICUS, and Labour Party member, put it into perspective when he pointed out how the Labour leadership's attack on the firefighters, would have been outrageous even from a Tory government.

Yet the Sun's rejoicing is premature. The firefighters have not "crumbled". This is an industrial dispute. Strikes are only one weapon. Manouevres, like going to ACAS, are also weapons in this dispute.

This fight is not over. Blair's retreat before the wave of outrage triggered by his proposal to bring in top-up fees for the poser universities shows that though this government wants to appear tough, it can be made to crumble.

The FBU National Executive's decision to seek mediation for exploratory talks with the employers through the Advice, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) on the eve of a second round of eight-day strikes. ACAS is of course a gamble for the FBU. If ACAS rules in favour of a better deal for firefighters than the 4% the Government insists on, that will wrong-foot the Government and put new energy behind the firefighters.

If ACAS's ruling is broadly in line with what the Government want, that will undermine the union's case. Some firefighters were taken aback by the decision to, again, call off strike action, especially given the growing militancy and determination amongst many firefighters.

That militancy has grown after the Government interfered for a second time to wreck the chances of a decent pay settlement. It was roused further last week when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott admitted to the House of Commons that 10,000 firefighters and fire operators jobs would be cut as part of the Government's modernisation plans. This was the government was rubbing their noses in it.

What are the prospects with ACAS? Without the backing of the Government the employers are unable to fund a decent pay settlement. Even if cuts are to be made through "modernisation", savings will be insufficient in the first year. The Government refuses to provide it without "modernisation".

The Government wants a stand-up fight with the FBU because it is out to crush the FBU and smother the life out of the trade union revival.

Therefore, at the best, the appeal to ACAS is a tactical manoeuvre to prove once more that the FBU wants to resolve the matter and are willing to talk, and that the politics-driven government are the irreconcilable in this dispute.

The ACAS gambit will also, perhaps turn down the heat on the hysterical campaign against FBU Leader, Andy Gilchrist, around the claim that the firefighters are out to bring down the Government.

But in the end, the Government will decide, and the manoeuvre with ACAS may only have postponed an all-out fight with the Government.

The FBU leadership have come under pressure from TUC leaders, John Monks and Brendan Barber, to settle the dispute and, for the sake of the Government, calm things down on the industrial front.

The FBU may be on strike again from 16 December. The lull while ACAS deliberates gives the labour and trade union movement the opportunity to prepare for the next stage of the fightback.

Here nothing has changed: we must continue to build for solidarity with the fire fighters and link the pay struggles across the unions.

Last week workers in the public sector took strike action that coincided with the fire fighters eight day strike.

Teachers, education support workers and local government workers have withdrawn their labour in support of pay claims.

These are the workers whom Blair fears will gain confidence from any decent settlement of the fire fighters' claim

As Prime Minister of an unashamedly boss-serving Government, Blair thinks he cannot afford to lose this battle. Blair sees the firefighters strike as his own miners strike, and himself as Margaret Thatcher politically reborn.

He knows he has to stamp on the beginnings of any trade union revival or risk losing control. And for a control freak politically committed to serving his god, profit, such a prospect is what nightmares are made of.

It is Tony Blair who has made this dispute a political dispute.

Last weekend Blair ordered the troops to cancel all Christmas leave and to be available to deal with emergency fire cover, despite the fact that no strikes are planned for the Christmas period. Blair was playing politics in a bid to rouse the feelings of rank and file soldiers and sailors against firefighters.

Andy Gilchrist in his speech to the Socialist Campaign Group conference in Manchester said nothing more than what millions of trade unionists have been thinking and saying for five years .Yes, we do need a real Labour government, not a new Labour Government!

Gilchrist is a Labour Party member, who last May, argued for and won a vote against a left-wing motion at the FBU's national conference, which called for a rule change to allow for the possibility that political funds could go to other parties, and not, as now, to Labour.

In Manchester, he was talking to a gathering. of predominantly Labour Party members. He was arguing the case for fighting from within to reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairites.

Blair and his cronies opportunistically seized on Gilchrist's observations with their usual deceit and hypocrisy to blame the FBU leader for making the dispute political - something they have done from the beginning of the dispute.

Organise within what's left of the Labour Party to fight Blair? That is to want to overthrow the Government! It is also lese majeste against King Tony.

Gilchrist is right. We need a government that is on the side of the working class, against the bosses.

We need a workers' government which will serve the working people of this country, as Tory Blair now serves the bosses who exploit us!

But the Labour Party has been all but strangled by the New Labour hijackers who seized control of the trade union's party in 1994. Recreating an organisation which truly represents the working class will be a radically different organisation from Blair's New Labour Party.

Such an organisation will be the product of many fights and and almost certainly, of a split by the trade unions from Blair's party.

This is indeed a political dispute. It is not just a dispute involving fire fighters struggling for better pay.

Though the fire fighters are in the immediate firing line, this is a battle for the whole labour movement, and it will not stop now.

Blair and the employers, with their "modernisation" agenda, have determined the nature of this battle, and in order to win a labour movement victory we have to mobilise for solidarity action.

What is the next step for the labour movement?

If talks with ACAS fail to deliver anything like a decent pay offer for the FBU, or if a decent pay offer depends on job cuts and attacks on the union, then the current mood amongst rank and file fire fighters means that the strikes will resume.

Immediately we should be arguing for the "awkward squad" of trade union leaders - in the PCS, Amicus, RMT, FBU and so on - to get together.

They need to organise links across unions at local and grassroots level.

The left in the unions needs to make itself an organised, consistently-campaigning force in the labour movement, focusing on rank and file organisation to fight for real trade unionism.

In the case of the FBU such a rank and file organisation would provide aggressive support for union leaders organising the fight, act as a counterweight to the pressure from the other side, and be a force to reckon with for anyone contemplating surrender.

The unions need to get together with those Labour MPs, and constituency activists who are willing to challenge Blair in his own party.

The left in the labour movement needs to organise pressure on the TUC leadership - get the trade union movement as a whole to act!

We demand:

  • That the TUC build solidarity for the fire fighters and low paid workers.
  • That the TUC call and co-ordinate a national day of action on a working day as a show of strength and solidarity with the firefighters..
  • Organise a recall TUC conference to hammer out strategy and tactics to win money for public services and public sector workers.
  • Organise a national levy of trade union members as an act of solidarity to help financially support workers taking strike action such as the firefighters.
  • Mount a serious campaign around existing pay struggles in the public sector: teachers, lecturers, paramedics and ambulance workers; workers in the NHS and in education.
    Workers in local government and in the civil service, on the rail and in the post should combine in a common struggle.
  • Workers in Labour-affiliated union should organise for a recall Labour Party conference.
    With this kind of solidarity from our movement, the fire fighters can win. With solidarity we can all win.
  • Let the labour movement forcefully remind Tory Blair that so long as there is a system based on putting profit before people there will always be class struggle.

The workers united, will never be defeated!

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