Labour brings in the troops

Soldiers called in to break the Liverpool firefighters’ strike

TROOPS were on the streets of Liverpool last week, as Merseyside firefighters staged the first two strikes in a series of nine-hour stoppages. The strikes are a protest against the loss of 20 posts and a reduction of three days in annual leave. A massive demonstration of support saw an estimated 10,000 firefighters march through Liverpool to applause from the public.

On Saturday firefighters petitioned in the main shopping street and received overwhelming support. The ballot for strike action saw 81% of firefighters vote to strike in a colossal rejection of the employers’ plans.

The strike is the outcome of years of struggle against one of the most aggressive in a new breed of fire brigade managers. Before the strikes took place Chief Fire Officer Best threatened to refuse to pay firefighters for shifts they worked ‘voluntarily’. The Fire Brigades Union has stood firm on this issue, making it clear that escalation would involve a complete walkout.

The Labour controlled authority has repeatedly backed CFO Best against the FBU, claiming that financial limits imposed by central government have forced their hands. The marchers included a minority of ‘veterans of 1977’. In ‘new Labour’ we see the same policies that led to the strike against the ‘old Labour’ government of Jim Callaghan.

The antics of Labour councils should be a warning to all trade unionists that a Labour government will not see an end to attacks on trade unions.

The Conservative government has washed its hands of all responsibility. It has cut back the fire service and tried since 1980 to defeat a still powerful union. Baroness Blatch, minister of state at the Home Office, has said that financial incompetence has led to Merseyside missing out on government grants.

Firefighters and workers generally know that the record of Conservative governments has been consistently hostile to them. The Tories have used their control of local government finance to break resistance from unions and elected councillors.

In Liverpool the suspension of the 47 left Labour councillors directly removed the chair of the Fire Authority, Derek Hatton.

Firefighters organised in the FBU have to rely on solid union organisation to defeat this current threat. In the long term firefighters need to build a political response. It is only when we can present a powerful alternative to all the established parties, including Labour, that services and hard won conditions can be properly defended.

The Socialist Workers Party leafleted the march with a call for a national walkout. This is a realistic immediate demand, but leads advanced workers no further than simple trade unionism. A political challenge to the corrupt Labour administration of Merseyside is the step these self-styled revolutionaries are reluctant to take.

Chris Jones
Former chair, Merseyside FBU