Firefighters' battle

Print edition : December 20, 2002

The conflict between the Fire Brigades Union and the Tony Blair government is likely to sharpen to the point of breaking Labour's historic links with the trade union movement.

In West Bromwich, England, soldiers tackle a massive blaze at a disused plastics factory on November 22, the first day of the eight-day strike by the Fire Brigades Union.-DAVID JONES/AP

WITH much recrimination all round, firefighters in the United Kingdom went on an eight-day strike on November 22. The strike had been brewing ever since the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) demanded a 40 per cent pay rise in early summer. The FBU claimed that this was needed to bring the firefighters' pay in line with that of other public sector workers. But with inflation running at only 2 per cent in the U.K., the FBU could have had little hope of the demand being seen as anything other than ambitious and perhaps with hindsight over-ambitious and unrealistic. The fire service in the U.K. is controlled by local, usually county-wide, "fire authorities". However, the funder of the fire service is overwhelmingly the national government, which allocates the fire authorities a grant. The rest of the fire service bill is met through local taxation.

Therefore, while the national association of local fire authorities is, strictly speaking, the employer, it was always clear that any pay settlement would, in fact, need the agreement of the government.

In summer the employers had offered 16 per cent, but with the proviso that the FBU agree to a programme of "modernisation", a word that has become synonymous with Tony Blair's New Labour government. And modernisation has come to mean both effecting job cuts and changing time-honoured practices among trade unionists. Over recent months the argument has boiled down to the unions saying "give us the money and we'll discuss changes" and the employers saying "agree to changes first and then we'll talk about the money".

Faced with the strike threat, there was some old-fashioned burning of the midnight oil, with both sides offering compromises. Eventually, at 5.30 a.m. on November 22 both sides thought they had a deal, but there was a catch - the employers added the crucial rider that the extra cash to finance the pay rise would have to come from the government.

Both sides moved from incredulity to anger when they were told that the government, in this case Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who is in charge of local government, would not be able to consider the compromise until 9 a.m., that is, two hours after the announced commencement of the strike. Both anger and incredulity increased when the government, in its now familiar "off the record" way, said that the compromise was "half-baked".

The government's unwillingness even to shadow the overnight talks and its brusque rejection of the compromise deal gave credence to the notion that the government was spoiling for a fight with the FBU. This suspicion was strengthened when the right-wing populist newspaper The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch and which hails Prime Minister Tony Blair as the true heir to Margaret Thatcher, praised Blair for emulating her tactics when she took on the National Miners' Union (NUM) in 1984. In a stark and infamous reminder of the Falklands conflict, Thatcher had dubbed the NUM "the enemy within".

The present conflict will sharpen, possibly to the point of breaking Labour's historic link with the trade union movement. It is no accident that the FBU has been at the forefront of those union voices advocating cutting their historic constitutional and financial links with the Labour Party.

The question is, has the government bitten off more than it can chew? Unlike Thatcher in 1984 with the Falklands campaign behind the government, Blair has an international conflict in front of him, as daily evidence mounts that the United States is determined to attack Iraq and that Blair is determined to go with George Bush.

The cover for the striking firefighters will be provided by the Army and its colourful but archaic fire engines, the so-called "Green Goddesses". There was a dreadful embarrassment at one of the government press conferences two days before the strike began. Asked if the forces could cope with action in Iraq and the firefighters' strike, Defence Minister Geoff Hoon gave a bland reassurance only to be roundly contradicted by the Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Boyce. Worse was to follow. The government has been hinting that soldiers might, in an emergency, use the firefighters' own more modern apparatus, but when asked, Admiral Boyce declared that he would advise troops not to cross the FBU's picket lines to get the equipment.

There is enormous anger among the ranks of the trade unions. John Edmonds, the right-wing leader of the General and Municipal Workers (GMB) Union, reacted by saying, "The government has completely lost control, not just of this dispute, but of the entire industrial relations agenda."

Though solidarity strike action has been banned in the U.K. since the Thatcher era, the unions have what could be a decisive weapon in their ability to invoke job-stoppages for unacceptable levels of risk. Edmonds' GMB union has said that it will back its members in the energy generating industry if they walk out on safety grounds fearing that the Army's firefighting capacity is an inadequate replacement for that of the striking firefighters. On the first day of the strike several deep-lying London Underground stations were closed for safety reasons. Train drivers covered by the RMT union are also threatening to ballot their members about withdrawing on safety grounds.

With the FBU planning two further eight-day strikes before Christmas, the Blair government seems determined to emulate the Thatcher regime by forcing a trade union into defeat. A bitter battle looms.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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