Lions led by donkeys - FBU dispute, 2002-2003 - AF

Submitted by Steven. on January 6, 2007

Article written during the ongoing strike of fire fighters from 2002-2003 by the Anarchist Federation over pay and conditions, analysing the restructuring, the circumstances leading to the strike and the actions of the union.

By the time Organise! goes to print and this article is read, it is possible the firefighters dispute will have been settled, with the FBU giving enough ground to avoid their strike being declared unlawful and the threat of legislation to make strikes illegal in the Fire Service. If so, the minimum that will need to have been conceded is flexibility on overtime and rostering, part-time working throughout the Fire Service and the loss of thousands of jobs. A face-saving formula (on all sides) may have been cobbled together but it will be the ordinary firefighter who pays the price. It is also possible however, that it will have entered a new and more dangerous phase. Either strikes will have intensified and spread, perhaps while war is raging in Iraq, or they will have been suspended, but with both sides preparing for a second round: government will be preparing a propaganda blitz and legislation to crush the strike, while the FBU will try to enlist other public sector unions and the TUC in a ‘popular front’ against Blairism.

If the dispute has been settled its usual to read its entrails to discover who won this struggle between organized labour and the state. But with war raging or the government in crisis, winners and losers will take second place to more pressing issues. When the dust has settled, at conference time, each side will no doubt claim something. The FBU Executive will put a brave face on the concessions they have had to make. Tony Blair and his government of management control-freakery will claim to have defeated the ‘wreckers’, the new ‘enemy within. Whatever the claims by each side, who will have won the strategic victory that each side began to believe possible as the strike intensified?

Some people feared the strike was lost even before it began, back in the summer of 2002 when the government vetoed the 16% pay offer. The FBU leadership made the fatal mistake of allowing their negotiations to appear on the government’s radar, and as an issue of authority and fiscal prudence, not fair pay and sensible service improvements. No doubt the FBU leadership expected a quick campaign and the municipal employers to capitulate. But national, pre-announced strikes only allowed the government to shoulder the employers aside in defence of their carefully-nurtured image of competence. A programme of wildcat, random, station-by-station strikes would have put maximum pressure on the employer at the local level while allowing no national response. With government unable to bear down on the strikers and the prospect of an indefinitely sustainable dispute, the employers would have been forced to take back the negotiations and settle.

The biggest losers long-term will, of course, be the rank-and-file firefighter and (less directly) all public sector workers. The firefighters, well-disciplined, popular and with a massive democratic mandate were led to the picket line like lions and staked out for the media vultures like donkeys. In a strange reversal at the end of 2002, while ordinary firefighters called for the ‘big push’ of an all-out strike, their generals quailed, cowered and gave in, sounding the recall by suspending the strikes. Too late the trade union ambulance was rushed to the field to rescue the survivors: the battered FBU leadership and the discredited fire authority negotiators. No doubt the leaders of the TUC hoped to strengthen their negotiating position, making themselves useful to the government and popular with members and the public alike. They too are firefighters, though of a different sort…..

But their efforts misfired: government ministers and their fat cat advisors hated the way they ‘rescued’ the firefighters just as they were closing for the kill: public support for the strike was waning, the army was coping and Andy Gilchrist went ‘over the top’ with his "Time for Real Labour" speech. The enemy within had blinked, and were ready to be crushed. Then came the offer of mediation, the closing of ranks, the critical speeches, the hints of disaffiliation. Blair, Prescott, Blunkett and Raynsford will not forget such disloyalty, and it will be the ordinary worker who pays the price.

Early in 2003 a new round of strikes were threatened and Prescott threatened to take powers to end the dispute and enforce a settlement, effectively nationalising the Fire Service by taking negotiating powers away from the local employers. The FBU went very quiet. The threat of strikes, quickly smothered by the TUC and FBU, gave Blair his chance. How easy it was to wrap his government in the flag and refuse to be dictated to by unreasonable and unpatriotic strikers. The action merely made a ban on public sector strikes after the next election more likely. The perception of a battle more likely to be lost than won (despite the total solidarity and determination of rank-and-file firefighters) was reinforced when the 16% offer over two years was scuppered in November and when a worse deal was tabled in March, amid renewed threats of legislation against industrial action.

Having been forced to concede the principle of a link between ‘fair pay’ and modernisation, our prediction is that the floodgates will open. Sometime soon, perhaps this year, the government will issue its consultation paper on the ‘future’ of the Fire Service. The counter-attack will be launched. A full-time service (preserved in London and Merseyside) will go – with 4000 job losses - and more moderate (and easily cowed) part-timers recruited. A Bob Pounder, an FBU Executive Committee member, suspended but later reinstated for speaking about the dispute says: In Greater Manchester, we face a £5 million cuts package. Prior to this dispute, we were in a strong and militant position. However, unless something changes, the signal will go out that the FBU is a spent force, and this will strengthen the hand of the management to implement cuts, which will reverberate throughout every brigade in the country.

Some services will be ripe for privatisation: fire safety advice perhaps, community education, control rooms, civilian support, vehicle maintenance. The corporations now beginning to deliver public services across the country and for massive sums will be licking their lips. No doubt like the railways, the Fire Service has many stations in prime sites – 150 are targeted to go. Why buy fire engines? Let the private sector buy them and lease them back! More importantly, who will be able to stand against privatisation, part-privatisation and externalisation when the firefighters couldn’t? Who can argue against modernisation now? Expect the pace of ‘partnership’ to quicken and big contracts for public sector provision to fall into the bloated hands of the corporate fat cats.

The screw will tighten around the firefighters: "If you can’t talk about service improvements, we can’t talk about pay". "If you won’t modernize, there will have to be job losses". As in postal sorting offices, managers will be encouraged (that’s government-speak for strong-armed) to introduce change, there will be financial inducements to ‘pilot’ new ways of working on a service-by-service basis. If they resist modernization, real job losses will come. They will be forced to fight on the government’s terms, not theirs. All the dispute has done is put them in the firing line this year. Will the firefighters be able to resist? If a strike should develop it will be on the battleground of service improvement (always popular with the consumer), not fair pay or efficiency. The moral high ground will have been lost and the dispute, if one develops, will be fought in the swamp of management-speak about ‘performance indicators’, ‘public-private’ and ‘output measures’. The public gaze will falter and turn away; the dispute will be lost.

More importantly, the Blairite modernisers will have won a famous victory, consolidating their iron grip on domestic policy, led by Blair’s jack-booted ministers, Nick Raynsford and John Prescott. They will have faced down a group of workers driven to the end of their tether and solidly militant because of it. They will have discredited the Left at the same time as they out-manouvered and baffled the FBU leader, Andy Gilchrist. They will have proved that no public service, however valued or organised, is immune from the modernisation treatment. They will have cowed some public sector workers. The TUC will have lost all credit with government while gaining no credit with ordinary workers – they played their part in attempting to sell the firefighters a bad deal, then running for cover. Workers will be further demoralised, anger about pay and conditions deflated, pay demands moderated, privatisation slowed but not stopped. The fix will be in, and no mistake.

The big losers will be low-paid public sector workers. Tony Blair raised the spectre of 10%, 15% or 20% pay demands if the FBU won. If the strike is settled on harsh terms, the campaign for a fairer share of public sector spending is almost beaten before it can start. 3% is more likely than 15% this year. And with all the talk of recession and economic ‘hard landings’, it’s likely that public sector employees will be faced down, and accept less – or rather their leaders will.

The most heartening thing about the strike was the sheer determination of the ordinary firefighter (and the public support they got throughout, despite the government and media’s vicious onslaught). They quickly realised the dangers facing them but stood firm, and argued for all-out industrial action to force government to negotiate sensibly and quickly. They also fought to defend the principle that developing public services should be a co-operative endeavour, between those who use and who provide the service. The service provided on Merseyside has cut fire deaths in half by installing twice the national average number of smoke detectors, a policy championed by firefighters but now threatened by cuts and the breakdown in industrial relations. At the same time, and as a measure of just how corrupt municipal government is, the councillors elected to the Merseyside Fire Authority voted themselves a 50% increase in their allowances (in line with other fire authorities). The Chairman, Peter Corcoran (who got a 52% pay rise), said "independent assessors are saying we should receive proper allowances for the job which we do". A sentiment the firefighters would endorse, since their own claim to £30k was based on an assessment by the independent Labour Research Department!

What lessons can we learn? Firstly that strikes are best not led by the so-called leadership, unless workers are prepared to compromise from the start. Second, that once stopped, they are hard to re-start. It is far better to change your tactic to intensify pressure on the enemy while reducing it on your own forces: rolling strikes and guerilla strikes cause an image of ‘chaos’ and a dispute ‘out of control’ which will force the bosses on the defensive. Thirdly, the trade union leadership will always seek to compromise at the expense of workers rather than jeopardise their mediating role between worker and employer. Fourthly, and most importantly, that there are no solutions within the framework of what we call work, our working lives – no solution to low pay, inadequate pay, unfair pay, antisocial hours or working practices, to stress, to alienation, to bullying or indifferent bosses. Many trade unions were formed to enable the worker to seize the means of production – tools, machines, the lorries and looms, the factories and fields – from the boss and to enable workers to organise their working lives for themselves and for society’s benefit. Now they just sell insurance. Yet workers, and we are workers too, put our trust in them and expect them to deliver us from the not-so gilded cage of a working life, a life of toil with scant reward. We must organise as workers to take back the means of work, in order to free ourselves from it.