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FBUHigh stakes in firefighters’ strike

Firefighter union leaders Mick Shaw and Ian Leahair called for the support of other trade unions and the entire labour movement at a meeting called by the South East Region of the TUC.

“There will be picket lines at all 110 fire stations in London and other trade unionists are needed to provide physical, moral and financial support,” Shaw said last night. The Fire Brigades Union leaders were speaking in advance of strikes planned for November 1 and another beginning on Bonfire Night.

The bitter dispute between the London FBU and the London Fire Authority (LFEPA) may not seem that significant, as it involves only 5,500 operational firefighters. But the Tory leaders of the Greater London Authority (GLA) have served all working fire-fighters with notice of dismissal because they refused to sign a new contract that severely reduces their conditions. Not only is the London fire brigade the third largest firefighting organisation in the world, protecting Europe’s biggest and particularly vulnerable city from fire, but there are major political issues at stake.

Yesterday a spokesman for Prime Minister Cameron said the strike was “cynical” and “reckless” while Labour leader Ed Miliband condemned the strike as dangerous, saying it would cost lives. The government and the employers’ propaganda machine is in full swing in an attempt to swing public opinion against the firefighters. They are the most organised of all public sector workers with virtual 100% membership.

Firefighters are the most militant of the public sector and have fought two bitter national strikes - both against so-called Labour governments in last 30 years. Their union broke from Labour after the 2003 dispute, the outcome of which the present contract struggle in London is related to. New Labour wanted to break up national agreements and "modernise" the service to the detriment of public safety and firefighters' livelihoods and the GLA under the Tories is trying to enforce this. So forcing them to accept worse conditions and ultimately fewer jobs under a new contract would be a defeat for all public sector workers who are facing massive redundancies.

Labour MP John McDonnell, secretary of the FBU group in Parliament warned: “this is a provoked dispute. The model of AssetCo [the company being used for strike breaking] is the shape of the future. If the FBU do not win, job cuts will follow. This is the first wave of privatising the emergency services”.

Ian Leahair said that while the employers claimed the new contract was only about “minor shift changes”, they had spent a lot of time preparing and manipulating decisions. ”We knew this was coming. I have never seen so much bullying and harassment. Fire authority management is already docking pay by up to 80% if an instruction was not obeyed. The FBU will not be intimidated. Unless they withdraw the sacking threat, we will not call off our bonfire night strike. It’s us that go into those fires. If we could avoid this we would. Be behind us!”

Steve Hedley of the tube and rail workers union, RMT, praised the FBU’s “brave decision" to step up their strike. He said that some RMT members had refused to take out trains during last week’s strike. London Underground was threatening court action against the union. Like Jenny Sutton, chair of the London Region of University and College Union and others at the meeting, Hedley was scathing about the TUC call for a demonstration in March. “Spring is too late,” Sutton said. “We cannot wait for that for co-ordinated action. There must be a motion for a general strike.”

The concerted attack on the FBU is a test case of union-busting. Employers watching to see the outcome. The employers intend pick off groups of workers one by one. More than ever, no single group of workers can be expected to win on their own in the face of a united coalition government, vicious anti-union laws and an unprecedented financial crisis. The 500,000 jobs at stake in the public sector as a result of the cuts announced last week cannot be defeated in a series of "local disputes".

The driving down of public spending is driven by the economic and financial crisis. The only way forward is to mobilise the widest sections of the population - wherever they work - in actions that go beyond limited strikes. A World to Win’s call for a network of People’s Assemblies to be formed, to unite trade unionists and local communities and work for a transfer of power, is more timely than ever.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
29 October 2010

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