Jane Clarke from the Bedfordshire FBU spoke to Jill Mountford just before the union's conference on Wednesday 19 March
The strength has been the membership, ordinary firefighters and fire control operators, who voted overwhelmingly, nine to one, in favour of strike action for better pay. The people who do a difficult and stressful job, for a wage that is not enough to keep a family on, have remained the strength of this dispute.
The weakness has been the tactics employed by the FBU leadership. Early on John Prescott urged the FBU leadership to "talk not walk". This was more than just a throw-away sound bite for the six o'clock news and newspaper headlines. It was Prescott putting pressure on the leadership to call off democratically-decided strike action in favour of talks with the bosses. The same bosses who had to talk to the Government before they could come back and offer us anything! The FBU leadership chose the road of negotiation instead of strike action.
What we should have done was to insist on talks and walks, negotiation while taking strike action. We have an almost 90% majority in favour of strike action. We were in a strong position. We've enjoyed public support and the Government are now under tremendous pressure with their war on Iraq.
The Government didn't ban the strike as many anticipated, and perhaps the union leadership were hoping. The Government are playing it tough and cool, and the last thing the union's leadership should have done is call off the strike due on 20 March. We should continue to strike until the membership have accepted an offer.
Some members are fearful of losing public support if we strike during the war, but not all. Many want to pursue the pay claim. We should not be hindered or hampered by Bush and Blair's war on Iraq. We didn't call the war, we didn't choose the start date and we won't be able to choose the date the war ends. But we did follow, to the letter, the detail of the anti-trade union laws, designed by the Tories to make strike action very difficult and to outlaw solidarity action. We did ballot the membership, and we won a massive vote for action. Our dispute is legitimate, which is a lot more than can be said for the war on Iraq.
The war situation, the pressure the Government and military are under, actually strengthens our hand. If the Government does not have the resources to fight a war on Iraq and a war at home, then they will have to decided which war they are going to end. I'd prefer if they ended the war on Iraq and save innocent Iraqi people from their death. Such a decision would not please George W.
It was up to Blair and his crew to decide the Government tactics in this dispute. It was up to the FBU to decide on the tactics that would get the best, most speedy results for the firefighters. That meant standing up to the Government, not cowering and backing down.
A National Strike Committee, with rank and file firefighters as well as members of the Executive Committee, is a good idea. The call for it is there because members think some of the existing "strike committee", the democratically elected Executive Committee, are not representing their members' views. EC members should be made more accountable for the decisions they are making, and they should make sure they're not just reporting back what Andy Gilchrist and the national officials want them to.
Rank and file firefighters have often been more determined than the leadership. The EC needs to bear this in mind. John Prescott and Tony Blair don't have a vote at FBU conference. Firefighters do.
We've received great support from other unions: resolutions passed at branch meetings, donations, collections. Many firefighters have been round to speak at union meetings. The support we got early on in the dispute from rank and file RMT members on the Tube who took up the health and safety campaign was very impressive. Even the likes of John Monks and Bill Morris gave their support and condemned the Government for their attitude towards our dispute. The public support was excellent, showing their appreciation for the job we do.
The Tories outlawed solidarity action with their anti-union laws. The problem is, Blair just accepted these laws when he came to power. In fact he boasts about the laws to other European leaders. A so-called Labour Prime Minister, the first in nearly two decades, and he supports legislation which prevents workers from taking solidarity action!
The main point is, though, we can't expect the rest of the trade union movement to come to our aid if our leadership calls and then cancels strikes so often. The FBU collectively needs to show the kind of strength and determination the nine to one strike ballot result showed back in September.
Blair has led us into war. He's not delivered what millions of workers and their families hoped for and expected from a Labour Government.
It's not enough to say we should stop giving the Labour Party our money. We have to have an alternative party to give our money to, or we're further excluding ourselves and millions of other workers from having any political voice and representation in Parliament. We need a new workers' party, set up by the trade unions, the best activists from the Labour Party and others, that can fight for the working class as hard as Blair is fighting for the rich.