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Firefighters Prepare For Pay Battle
DELEGATIONS OF fire fighters from around the country packed out the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference to deliver, in the words of one delegate: "a clear message to the employers - if you're not prepared to pay us, get your green goddesses ready, you're going to need them!"
Ted George, chair of the UK's fire authorities, who listened from a balcony, was left in no doubt of the determination of firefighters to win their pay claim for £30,000.
Regional and section representatives spelled out the same message. From the Black Members' committee: "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights" ˆ la Bob Marley.
From Scotland: "The Tartan Army's ready". From Northern Ireland, remembering the 1977 strike: "We've not gone away you know" and from Buckinghamshire: "If you try to keep us in an out of date pay formula, the government will get, not just a bloody nose but a bloody good hiding!"
FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist received a standing ovation for his opening speech. He explained how the 'comrades' of the 1977/78 strike had won a pay formula which had raised firefighters' wages.
Due to de-industrialisation, the link with manual workers' pay now left firefighters on £100 a week less than average male earnings.
A qualified firefighter, after four years training, gets £21,500 a year and after 15 years' service £24,000. Such wages leave many claiming Family Tax Credit or working a second job.
In launching the 'Fair Pay Equals 30K' campaign, Andy Gilchrist, reflecting the pressure from below, warned: "If we don't get this, then we'll go on strike and we'll get it then."
After a unanimous 241-0 vote, he replied by saying: "We're giving them (the bosses) the problem back." If the claim's not met, there will be a recall conference with an executive recommendation to ballot for a strike, which could take place this winter.
With the authority of his 'Left' face and unity on pay, in the next debate Gilchrist attacked delegates wanting to loosen the FBU's links to the Labour Party.
Last year resolution 101 was passed calling on the executive to bring back rule changes to allow the union to fund candidates other than Labour. Instead of bringing the rule changes to the conference, the executive reaffirmed Labour Party affiliation and tried to ridicule those advocating 'democratisation of the political funds'.
Gilchrist, arguing that: "there was nothing 'new' about New Labour", accused supporters of 'democratisation' of 'back-door methods' to achieve disaffiliation from the Labour Party, 'gesture politics' and 'not living in the real world'.
In response to the executive report there were a number of amendments to allow regional committees of the FBU to decide who to donate to, without having to refer to the executive.
Unfortunately, however, the movers evaded the executive's challenge over disaffiliation and when it came to the vote the amendments were defeated by around four to one.
The Socialist Party's position is that the character of the Labour Party has fundamentally changed and that the FBU and other Left unions should take a lead in initiating a new mass workers' party.
While it may not have swayed the conference vote this year, it is the only way to answer the leadership's arguments.
Whilst 'democratisation' may tactically be the best rule changes to advocate at this stage in the FBU, the union's Left needs to shed its illusions of reversing the rightward changes in the Labour Party.
Otherwise FBU activists may well find themselves lagging behind their members, especially in a pay strike against the New Labour government.
In The Socialist 24 May 2002: