By Nick Holden
The simmering firefighters' dispute is reaching a decisive phase, with a consultative ballot over what both the employers and the FBU's negotiators claim is the 'final' offer.
On the surface the pay dispute was buried long ago, and the ballot, like the recent unofficial action taken by many FBU members, is only about a detail: whether the Stage Two of the three-stage pay deal is paid in one 7% increase or two 3.5% increases, one now, and one (backdated) some time next year. The date of the 2004 instalment is vague, being subject to 'verification by the Audit Commission'. Activists are justifiably suspicious that the employers will withhold the payment until the union has unconditionally surrendered on all of the outstanding elements of the employers' agenda for changing work conditions.
Below the surface, however, the whole deal is coming apart. Many FBU members argue that the 'deal' was never properly explained at the time that the union signed up to it, with many issues remaining unresolved.
Promises made by the negotiators on both side appear to have disappeared into thin air, and the split payment is the least of most firefighters'concerns.
The FBU leadership have worked hard to present the current dispute as being only a limited battle over when the 7% will appear in people's pay packets, but rank and file activists are focussing more on the work conditions being given away by the union in return for the 7%.
Many FBU members who voted to accept the deal in June feel betrayed by the 'position paper' agreement cobbled together on 7 November by the union negotiators and the employers, feeling that their 'leap of faith' in the summer has been rewarded by a kick in the teeth now.
The FBU leadership have not issued a recommendation in the ballot. They seized on the unofficial action which took place two weeks ago as evidence of how important the split pay issue is, they've circulated a statement from the employers effectively saying that a no vote would plunge the fire service into chaos for no good purpose, and that negotiations will not be re-opened under any circumstances.
Also the ballot paper is worded in such a way as to present a no vote as a precursor to all-out strike action - for 3.5%!
Union leaders have repeatedly stated that they don't expect further negotiations to be useful. If they wanted to recommend a yes vote, they couldn't have done it better.
It's taken a long time, but there are signs that the resurrection of the dispute is having an effect on the activists in the FBU. There are some moves towards a concerted challenge to the existing leadership, of which the two most significant are the current National Officer election, and the proposals for a vote of no confidence in the Executive which are being passed in a number of Brigades.
The National Officer, one of four nationally-elected full time positions in the FBU bureaucracy, is a key role in the leadership of the union. The election should have been held in the summer. However, because of a mistake in the ballot papers, it had to be cancelled and re-run.
In previous National Officer elections, sitting candidates have always been re-elected, but it is no longer a foregone conclusion that current National Officer Mike Lawson, will keep his position.
Meanwhile, London Regional Committee this week agreed an emergency statement which has since been circulating through the union, provoking an angry response from FBU head office. London Region's statement declared no confidence in the EC, the negotiating team and the national officers, and called for a recall FBU conference to debate the Stage Two proposals.
Increasing opposition is surfacing, not only to the content of the deals being done by the union's negotiators but also to the secrecy with which the leadership of the union operates. A wave of 'no confidence' motions are being debated in FBU brigades around the country, and if a third of the union's membership endorse such calls then we could see a national ballot of no confidence in the existing leadership of the union.
Alongside these moves, which are crucial if the rank and file are to gain control of the union, there are also some attempts being made to co-ordinate opposition to the existing leadership in advance of EC elections early next year. Traditionally, the 'left' in the FBU has been restricted to meetings of union officials, and this has contributed to the difficulties faced by activists in getting the union under democratic control. Now, however, thanks in part to the role played in the strike by unofficial rank and file website www.30kfirepay.co.uk, there are the beginnings of a true rank and file co-ordination in the FBU.
Firefighters who want to learn the lessons of the last twelve months need to be organising to ensure that a genuinely democratic rank and file movement does take shape inside the FBU, and that a concerted campaign in support of the Vote of No Confidence, and the demands for a recall conference, can be organised.
But the leadership can't be trusted to run the dispute either. Having worked to get the deal accepted in the consultative ballot, there's basically no chance that they will do anything useful if the ballot gives them a mandate to reject it. Therefore local, regional and national rank and file action committees are needed to keep the initiative in the dispute over Stage Two out of the hands of the union's officials.