The firefighters' dispute: one year on

Submitted by Anon on 26 November, 2003 - 11:40

Paul Woolstenholmes, Brigade Secretary of the Suffolk Fire Brigades Union (FBU), spoke to Nick Holden about the ballot which the union has called to accept or reject the employers' plan to pay the current 7% instalment of their wages deal in two stages, 3.5% now and the other 3.5%, backdated, only after 'verification' of changed work conditions.

Solidarity: What is at stake in the 'consultative ballot'?

Paul: We have again been painted into a corner by our own side. The Executive have given the members only two choices, when clearly there are more.

An 'accept' vote means closure on our fight for decent pay and the loss of our current conditions of service, plus two important changes to conference policy without the members' approval. Basically everything that the employers wanted when they took us on in what became known as 'Smash and Grab'.

'Reject' in our view does not automatically mean a vote for industrial action. Advocates of a vote to reject the plan are pushing for a recall conference in order to make decisions on the future of our service, and also discuss getting the employers back to the negotiating table. There are changes the employers want in the 'modern' service that cannot be achieved without our co-operation. We still have a bargaining position - obviously not in the opinion of the current negotiators, but they should step aside.

Why no recommendation from the union Executive (EC) in the ballot?

There is no reccommendation, but there is strong arming of certain officials and there are loaded choices. This places the onus of the decision on the members alone, and they can always be blamed at a later date by our "leaders" for accepting. A couple of National Officers have already stated more than once: "Well, the members signed up to this in June." In fire service terms this is known as a "stand from under"!

It is a cleverly worded exit strategy for the EC who will not have to work in the 'brave new world' they have negotiated for us from the nine-to-one mandate they had for action.

There has been talk of 'no confidence' in the FBU leadership for some time, but now it is coming to a head. The London FBU, for example, has passed a formal motion of no confidence. Why is that?

Since June, the twelve Brigades who rejected the deal, and a good proportion of members from the other Brigades, have been resigned to the fact that a job has been done on the grass roots by our own side. The Brigades which accepted were prepared to take the 'leap of faith' asked for by the leadership. Assurances were given that all the missing detail and grey areas in that dire final, final, final offer would be 'filled in'. We have now seen that trust blown out the water.

This is unforgivable, and very few people outside of the remaining EC-loyal officials now have confidence in the leadership. Your average member wants blood. There is a huge sense of betrayal.

The recent 'unofficial action' seemed to occur with the consent of the FBU leadership, and stop at their request. Doesn't that suggest that the membership are still pretty loyal to the current EC and [general secretary] Andy Gilchrist?

It was actually a sign of the absolute frustration with employers and a government who are constantly taking the piss out of us, and with our negotiators, who are either out of their depth or in collusion with them. I believe the action started spontaneously. Once it started, it was hijacked and became a clever piece of EC control with more spin than your average Campbell memo.

You tell me, how did a split 7% pay rise that no one honestly expected to get until next March or April suddenly become the focus of attention about back-stabbing employers? It was a smokescreen seized upon by our leadership to cover the other stuff they were selling us out on.

In essence firefighters are providing fire cover while having wages docked for taking industrial action for the 3.5% they would be getting anyway and back dated!

Ridiculous, but the national media loved it and had a field day about the militancy of the FBU for 3.5%, while missing out all the important issues. I don't think the action means members are still loyal.

Looking back at the nine-to-one majority for action a year ago, why do you think the union is now in such a difficult position?

Because of poor leadership. The EC ignored us and treated us with contempt with their undemocratic decision making. When they fouled up badly, they came back tail between the legs and blamed us any way they could. The employers and government have the measure of our negotiators, so why should they be reasonable? We have been treated disgracefully. As one RMT rep said "I didn't realise being a part of the awkward squad meant being awkward with your own members". Sums it up really.

What role has the 'left' in the FBU played in the dispute? Wouldn't it have been better to have a more democratic, rank-and-file organisation amongst the membership that could have carried through a serious fight for the union's position?

It isn't really a case of just the 'left' of the union fighting this sell-out. There is a group of activists in certain Brigades which opposed the deal who have carried on the struggle to achieve a decent settlement. Certainly a strong rank and file movement continues to build, and had there been more rank and file involvement at higher level early on we would have seen proper discussion, inclusion, democracy and accountability.

There is the thought that a firefighter on £21,500 per annum would have had more of an incentive in negotiations than someone on a Chief Fire Officer's salary.

A year ago we were told that the FBU dispute was pivotal for the whole of the public sector - do you still believe that's true?

Wild cat action aside, yes I do. The FBU was looked upon with some degree of envy as a strong trade union, one of the last old-style trade unions with industrial clout, since the printers, miners and dockers have been emasculated. For other public sector workers to see us getting trashed not only by the press, but by a Labour government that obviously holds Thatcher's methods in high esteem - it must have been quite a sobering event.

Why was the FBU leadership so timid about asking for support from other trade unions?

Most of the help from other trade unions that members are aware of was achieved locally, and I can only assume it is because that lot in Kingston [FBU head office] had the dispute mapped out (overwhelming conference demand for pay campaign, ballot, low turnout, poor or even better no call for action, salvage what they can from grey book for peanuts payrise, blame members), and when the curve ball of 87% 'yes' on the back of 85% turnout came, they had no plan 'B'. What do they do then? Keep it as low profile as possible, and do as good as nothing to counteract the media and political demonisation of a highly regarded and motivated workforce.

As for the TUC, they are just a white collar, junket-endorsing, quango paid for by us. I won't expand on that, because I'll get annoyed.

Can rank and file activists in the FBU take back control of this dispute?

We can but try to get control of the dispute back - but the membership have had a severe kicking from all sides so are still in shock. This is what the EC are relying on to achieve the 'accept' vote, and why the consultative ballot paper is worded the way it is. One thing is for certain though. Our members have long memories, and they will not forget who achieved that magnificent 3.5% of the four pillars of our campaign.

FBU leader Andy Gilchrist has presented himself as part of the so-called 'awkward squad', yet the FBU has not taken much action to fight for union policy inside the Labour Party, even to get FBU backed MPs to follow the union line. Why not?

Yes, the self perpetuating myth that somehow Gilchrist is some kind of champion of the left! The media again are to blame, they dreamt up the so called 'awkward squad' tag, and decided who would belong in that group. Why would they want MPs on board when they thought the dispute would go a certain way with minimum fuss?

Doesn't there have to be a political dimension to the FBU's resistance?

The dispute has got a lot of members interested in how we operate as a trade union, and an insight into the ruthless, disingenuous, spin and media-dominated world of politics. I think the answer is to take on these politicians at elections with an organised and strong rank and file movement.

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