FBU ranks must organise

Submitted by Anon on 8 December, 2003 - 5:35

FBU ranks must organise
By Nick Holden

Fire Brigades Union members have voted to accept the staging of the second phase of their pay rise, with a three to one majority.

The ballot had a 56% turn-out, low by the FBU's standards, and was a major reversal since twelve months ago, when there was a nine to one majority for strike action to win a £30,000 salary for all fire fighters.

The latest vote not only settles the pay campaign for £25,000 at the end of two years, but also accepts a number of cuts and attacks on working conditions dressed up by management - and sometimes the FBU negotiators - as 'modernisation'.

The ballot decision represents a major defeat for the FBU, and for public sector workers generally. When the firefighters began their strike action a year ago, many hoped that a victory by them would open the doors for all public sector workers.

The sight of the FBU campaign collapsing from such a position of strength must have had weight, for example, in the recent decision by postal workers not to take action in support of their national pay claim.

Like the postal workers, firefighters have recently been involved in unofficial action from which their union distanced itself while appearing to use it as a bargaining chip with the employers. In the FBU's case, there was little impact: even as the FBU ordered firefighters back to work from their 'unofficial' action, the employers were insisting that the promised 7% 'stage two' payment would be made in two parts: half now, and half at some unspecified time in the future.

The FBU leaders made no recommendation to members in the ballot on the staging, and instead circulated management's propaganda for them. Now the 'blame' can be placed at the door of the members who 'chose' to accept the deal, but that was clearly exactly what the FBU Executive wanted them to do.

As the dust settles, and firefighters find that they've sold their conditions of service for a pay rise that is only just above inflation, it's time to learn some urgent lessons.

The membership of this very strong union were never in control of the dispute - and were far too trusting of their leadership, even after a series of strikes had been called off to enable 'constructive' talks which invariably resulted in nothing but fresh attacks from management and the Government.

Some in the FBU are now arguing that £30,000 was an impossible demand, or that Gilchrist's comment during the dispute that he wanted to 'replace new Labour with real Labour' was somehow responsible for the defeat, but the fact remains that this was a winnable demand by a group of workers that had massive popular support and a strong union culture. What was lacking was a fighting leadership, and democratic control over the leadership.

There are some signs that these lessons are being learned. Some brigades are pushing votes of 'no confidence' in the leadership. Under FBU rules, these could provoke a national confidence ballot in the leadership if they are passed by one third of all brigades.

The candidature of Paul Woolstenholmes, Suffolk FBU Secretary, against Mike Lawson for National Officer, shows that some at least in the union are not prepared to give the current leadership an easy ride into the future.

Still lacking, however, is any democratic rank and file structure that can provide a platform for an alternative leadership to emerge, and a forum for rank and file firefighters to agree a strategy for 'taking back the union'.

Some FBU activists of many years' standing are already throwing in their union cards, and the stakes are high. If the FBU opposition forces can't turn themselves into a genuine alternative to the current leadership in the next few months, then the FBU may well be too weakened by demoralisation and disappointment to rally much opposition when the Chief Fire Officers round the country begin to use the new agreement as a pretext for attacking local conditions and closing fire stations.

Steve loses appeal

West Midlands firefighter Steve Godward's appeal against his suspension from the FBU on charges of harassment has been rejected. Steve was suspended by the union while being victimised at work, and the employers took his suspension as a green light to sack him. Now that the FBU has confirmed his suspension from the union, it seems likely that the management, not only in the West Midlands, but in every fire authority in the country must see this as an indication that 'troublesome' union activists will not get support from their union if they are victimised.

First in 20 years

About 4,400 workers at Short Brothers, the Canadian-owned aerospace firm in Belfast, have struck for six days over job cuts and working conditions. The striking workers were represented by Amicus and the TGWU.

The Canadian firm Bombardier wanted to reform work shifts and reduce overtime payments, under threat of job cuts. The firm had already cut 600 jobs in May and has cut more than 2,000 workers since 2001. Short Brothers is still Northern Ireland's largest commercial employer with a current workforce of 5,600.

The unions have agreed a deal for no redundancies before the end of March and the new shift pattern to be discussed as part of wider pay negotiations.

The strike action was the first of its kind at the company in 20 years.

NUT left divided

Patrick Murphy

A meeting of National Union of Teachers activists on 29 November in Nottingham failed to reach a consensus on a left candidate for the General Secretary election next year.

The previously agreed candidate, John Illingworth, has withdrawn because of illness.

There were three potential candidates at the Nottingham meeting, Ian Murch of the CDFU, Alex Kenny of the STA and Martin Powell Davies of the Socialist Party. But it was neither a local associations delegate meeting nor a joint meeting of the main left organisations in the union (STA and CDFU). An indicative vote was taken; it was made clear by all but the SWP that this bound no-one.

Efforts to ensure that there is only one left candidate will continue.

N. London win

Postalworkers in North London have forced a significant retreat by management over this year's Christmas Arrangements. Managers were so incensed that some of us may have been finishing earlier than our extended paid hours last year that they were insisting that we sort a huge daily diversion of 200,000 letters from Mount Pleasant for no more money than last Christmas. This would have saved them having to hire 50 casuals. They refused to offer the work as paid overtime to volunteers in the usual manner. After nearly every one of the 22 North London offices rejected the deal and ran a strike ballot, management withdrew the diversion.

CWU names days

Two more strike days over London Weighting have been publicly named by the postal workers' union CWU: 19 and 22 December.

Whether this is anything more than a negotiating ploy by the CWU leaders remains to be seen. They were keen to emphasise that the recent unofficial strikes were 'not about London Weighting', but the settlement made provision for the weighting (and National Basic Pay) to be included on the agenda of talks at the government arbitration service ACAS agenda.

Since then, a strike day was called off because of the talks and we have been told that Royal Mail has 'put more money on the table'.

It's hardly surprising if the company has managed to find some extra cash. They've just shelled out £1 million for the British Olympic Games committee.

But will it be enough to reward the sacrifices we have made during all the days we spent out on the cobbles? And if not, will the union's national and London leadership recommend we reject it and have a serious national fight over London Weighting and Basic Pay?

Also, now that we have seen a revival in the combativeness of the rank and file, isn't it time for a fight back against the threatened job cuts? The ACAS negotiations are due to conclude on 10 December.

Awaiting Tories?

On 19 November the PCS civil service union launched a parliamentary group, chaired by left Labour MP John McDonnell.

The move into politics is good. But with problems. The PCS's lack of a political fund creates procedural difficulties. It cannot, however, justify the union publicly and specifically seeking collaboration with Tory MPs.

According to the official union announcement: 'The Group will have vice-chairs from each of the four political parties…... The Conservative and Lib Dem vice-chair nominees are awaited'.

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