The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has consistently fought to defend the wages and conditions of its members, is about to engage in a momentous struggle in London that could well determine its very future as an organisation. So much is at stake that the FBU needs all the practical and active support it can muster from other unions.
Tory leaders of the Greater London Authority (GLA) are planning to sack over 5,600 firefighters and re-employ only those prepared to sign a new contract that severely reduces their conditions. The contract is being unilaterally imposed after the London FBU failed to reach a negotiated agreement with the employers.
The capital's firefighters are to stage eight-hour walkouts on 23 October and 1 November following a strike ballot in which 79% of FBU members voted in favour. Employers have already removed 27 fire engines from stations and handed them to private contractor AssetCo, which has strike breakers standing by.
That fire engines can be handed over just like that to a private firm is a result of decisions taken by the previous New Labour government, which the Tories are building on. It never forgave the FBU for holding a national strike eight years ago which led ultimately to the union’s break from Labour.
Conservative chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority Brian Coleman said: "I have to say, firefighters who don't sign the new contract won't be re-employed." In a reference to former US president Ronald Reagan's move to sack 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who refused to return to work in the early 80s, Coleman told London radio station LBC: "If it means 'doing a Ronald Reagan' – where he got rid of the air traffic controllers – I've got 948 firefighters who voted not to go on strike, together with the non-union members and the officers, I reckon 2,000 will sign their new contract."
Fire commissioner Ron Dobson and Coleman want to extend the day shift by two or three hours, a move which would wreak havoc on FBU members’ family lives as well as lead to cuts in fire cover throughout the capital (as revealed in a top-secret document leaked to the FBU). Thousands of firefighters have rallied and marched since the moves were announced in August.
London FBU leaders who called the strike ballot urged firefighters not to “be bullied out of our jobs”, and told them that a “yes” vote “may be the single most important act of your career”. Members responded positively, with an overwhelming “yes” on a 79% turnout.
The GLA’s anti-union stance is in a foretaste of what is rapidly coming up the line. Workers throughout the public sector are preparing to defend jobs, services and working conditions ater the spending axe falls this week. The FBU is joining a march against the cuts this Saturday, called by the rail union RMT, and is organising its own rally and lobby of Parliament on November 17 against systematic plans to wreck the fire service.
Clearly the FBU and the RMT, which is striking against job cuts on the Underground, are the first in the firing line. With the destruction of the FBU as an organisation the aim of the Tories, the old union adage that an injury to one is an injury to all was never more appropriate.
FBU and RMT leaders should appeal to their members to support joint, indefinite strikes against the cuts and the Tory-led GLA. Such a call could inspire other workers in the public sectors whose own union leaders are running for cover rather than standing firm. RMT leader Bob Crow has already called for unions to link up with local communities to broaden the fight against the coalition. The vicious attack on the FBU is as good an opportunity as any to put that policy into practice.