Jill Mountford spoke to Chris Jones, former chair of Merseyside FBU.
On 19 March, the special conference of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Brighton rejected an "improved" offer from the bosses in their long-running pay dispute. Their leaders had been desperate to have a 16%-over-three-years pay offer accepted and had recommended settlement. Just a week earlier the bosses had made a similar offer, and this had been rejected by the leadership!
The bosses' latest offer had reworded a paragraph relating to modernisation to allow both sides to claim some kind of victory. But delegates from brigades all over the country rejected the revised offer, seeing it for what it was.
The FBU leadership expected to carry their motion to accept the pay offer, and were shocked at the conference decision. Many delegates from around the country said that ordinary firefighters felt betrayed and let down by the leadership. There will be another recall conference in two weeks' time.
FBU activists across the union will be working flat out over the next fortnight to ensure that the industrial action, democratically decided last September, continues until a just offer is on the table.
Anti-war activists should throw their weight behind the firefighters, putting pressure on the Government to stop the war in Iraq and stop the war at home-on the firefighters and the FBU.
The FBU leadership have recommended a deal that seems no different from the one they rejected last week. What's going on?
I have just heard that the Conference has voted to reject the offer. I don't know what the fine print will be like. For example, the strike for 20 March has already been called off. The rejection is a great victory for the rank and file FBU member. It is not likely to be the end of the drive to capitulate, however. Andy Gilchrist has shown his hand in a great miscalculation of the mood in the branches. I'm convinced he thought he could slip this in under the fog of preparation for war. He has wounded his personal reputation, and he will have lost the trust of activists and a large section of the membership.
It is the same deal as regards money, but last week's offer gave the management an untrammelled right to manage. The few words that have changed in the new deal give local union officials the right to be consulted, but no more than that. It is, therefore, a complete break from the current arrangement where the National Joint Council (NJC) plays a much more significant role in decision making.
They have now created the illusion that they've conceded a point. They say the Joint Secretaries of the NJC can play a consultative role. But at present the NJC plays more than a consultative role.
To accept this offer would be a step backwards. It's potentially a serious defeat. It remains to be seen if it turns out this way in practice.
The 1977 firefighters' strike was a qualified defeat in terms of pay, but the FBU did make important gains through the NJC. This time the pay deal, though far short of the 40% demand, might appear a decent pay settlement over a relatively short period of time. However, the protection of the NJC Schemes and Conditions of Service is vastly reduced. This is a recipe for conflicts brigade by brigade, splitting the union, leaving some firefighters and fire control operators much worse off in some areas.
Given that there have been only minor amendments to the offer, why do you think that the leadership so readily accepted it?
There's been a suspicion amongst many activists for some time now that Andy Gilchrist wanted out of this dispute. The war has provided a bolt-hole for him. The ballot for the latest offer was to take place during the first few days of the war on Iraq. The newspapers would put tremendous pressure on firefighters and operators to accept the deal as a show of patriotism and support for the military out in the Gulf. Andy Gilchrist hoped to get the result he wants because of the war.
What, if any, mistakes have been made so far during this dispute?
Firefighters and fire control operators have been prepared for a long dispute. Since the enquiry was set up to investigate the pay formula back in 2000, members have understood that it was going to be a long, tough battle. Firefighters have accepted the strikes being called and then cancelled. They've been extremely disciplined and have seen the on-off strikes as part of the process. It makes absolutely no sense to pull the strikes now. Members are prepared for a long struggle to get decent pay.
The rumour going around for the last few days has been that the employers were going to impose a 16% deal. It would be better to let the bosses impose a deal that the members clearly reject, than for the FBU voluntarily to sign up to the deal that's on offer now.
What do you think about the criticism leveled at Gilchrist about his handling of the dispute?
A lot of members have fallen into the trap of defending Gilchrist when other members have criticised him for the way he's been running the dispute. This is the wrong place to start. There has, perhaps, been too much focus on Gilchrist and too little focus on how the rank and file can organise if the leadership fail to deliver.
The lesson to come out of this dispute so far is good and true for all trade unionists. Ordinary members need to pay more attention to getting a broad and developed trade union rank and file organised, so that we rely less on the leadership of any union, and rely more on ourselves to get what we need and want out of any dispute.
A year ago the FBU conference voted to democratise the political fund. In part, I think, the Labour-supporting leadership of the FBU wanted to prove that they could get something for their money out of a Labour Government. They were wrong. The FBU should be freezing funds to Labour Party councillors who are committed to the implementation of Bain, and instead they should support firefighters standing on a socialist platform, committed to the aims of the union and fighting for public services.