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Preparing for future battles
"THE LAST three years have been very hard for all of us. It's time to put our heads up. We're not going backwards, we ain't running anymore, come July we need to make a stand."
These fighting words in the pay debate from a West Yorkshire rep summed up the mood of delegates at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) annual conference that took place from 9-11 May.
The FBU took 15 days of strike action in a bitter dispute with the New Labour government in the winter of 2002-03. This resulted in a pay formula, but at the cost of big cuts in services and conditions. The employers have gone on the offensive, resulting in defensive industrial action in Suffolk, West Midlands, Hertfordshire and Merseyside.
The pay formula, that links firefighters' pay to the average rise achieved by the Associate Technical and Professional group of workers, runs out shortly. Conference voted to endorse the union's claim for a continuation of the pay formula for 2007, with the threat of consulting members on possible strike action if the employers refuse.
One of the main employers' attacks is their unilateral imposition of First and Co-Responding schemes in a number of areas.
First responding is when firefighters are called first to attend 999 medical emergencies when an ambulance is unavailable. Co-responding is when a fire crew is mobilised to a medical emergency with an ambulance to carry out basic first aid instead of ambulance staff.
Not only does this mean that firefighters are carrying out extra responsibilities that are not in their role maps (job descriptions) and not being paid for, co-responding also implies cuts in the ambulance service.
The union has recently won a precedent-setting court case which ruled that co-responding was outside firefighters' role maps. But 106 such schemes have already been introduced. Whilst most of these so far have been in 'retained' areas not affecting FBU members, in a few brigades the FBU have expelled members who have broken union policy and 'volunteered' to co-respond.
Against this background, the Executive Council's (EC) resolution to enter national discussions with the employers and at the same time suspend union expulsions was defeated. Instead, the motion from Merseyside FBU, which took strike action last September and recently won a court case upholding the expulsion of 11 'scab' members, was carried re-committing the union to its existing policy.
This shows the determination of FBU activists to resist management bully-boy tactics, but will have to be combined with a skilful union strategy to maintain unity and deliver the necessary industrial action.
Another consequence of the 2002-03 dispute was the decision by the FBU to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. This stance was re-confirmed as conference overwhelmingly rejected a South Yorkshire resolution to reaffiliate to Labour.
Even the mover of this resolution agreed that disaffiliation had not damaged the union but argued that it had damaged the Labour Left. To which, Tony Maguire from Northern Ireland, a Socialist Party member, told the conference that Labour Party members had confirmed that disaffiliation had not harmed the FBU but had indeed damaged the left of the Labour Party. The response should be: "What's left of the Left of the Labour Party?"
The Executive has agreed to hold a structured debate throughout the union on political strategy. The FBU should now take the next step of supporting election candidates and organisations that support union policies, and approach other unions such as the RMT to convene a conference to discuss the establishment of a new political party for the working class.
Controversial motions, which had aroused media interest, proposing to downgrade the status of Equality Sections in the FBU, were withdrawn. The union has sections with national committees and reserved EC seats for Black and Ethnic Minority members, Women and LGBT members with full voting rights.
The consequence of this is that the sectional EC members, who represent a minority of members, can cancel out the vote of another EC member representing as many as 7,000 votes. In an industry that is overwhelmingly staffed by white males, these equality sections have played a positive role in the FBU. But grassroots members are calling for a review of voting rights for the equality sections.
There is frustration among some activists at the 'moderate' leadership of these sections and the 'separatist', unaccountable and outright careerist attitudes of some of their representatives. But the best way to counter this is to build links with the Left in these sections and assist them in changing their leaderships and involve them in the wider union structures.
This would be helped by the formation of an open and democratic rank and file Broad Left organisation. Since the 2002-03 dispute there have been big changes in the national officers, particularly the election of Matt Wrack as a left general secretary and on the National Executive, with many of the 'old guard' replaced.
A Broad Left would help consolidate and extend this shift to the left and help prepare the union for the industrial battles that lie ahead against Gordon Brown and the employers.
In The Socialist 17 May 2007:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
International Socialist Resistance
Campaign for a New Workers Party
International socialist news
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news