Firefighters vote to escalate strike

Determined to win

ON TUESDAY firefighters on Merseyside voted to escalate their series of nine-hour strikes. Initially they will go to ‘back to back’ strikes covering 18 hours, and will ballot for 24-hour strikes next month. The trade union laws are so restrictive that any legal escalation beyond running two strikes back to back will take at least a month to organise.

Over 1,000 firefighters and control room staff filled Central Hall in Liverpool to hear the Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Ken Cameron, deliver a keynote speech. Ken Cameron outlined a fruitless series of talks with the conciliation service, Acas, that was initiated by the Fire Authority. Acas had met for six hours over the bank holiday with absolutely no movement from either the Chief Officer or the Labour council. In fact the strike seems set for a long haul.

The Labour group is determined to break the FBU in order to solve the council’s financial difficulties. FBU members are equally determined to win and remain solid in their support for the strike. The show of hands for escalation was almost unanimous with only one or two dissenting.

The mass meeting had one minute’s silence out of respect for the 22-year old student who had died in a blaze in a multi-occupancy house during the strike. The call to Acas was the Fire Authority’s response to this tragedy, which they tried to blame on striking firefighters.

A phone-in poll in the local paper showed continuing public support even following the death, with 93.2% backing the firefighters' action. There was such an overwhelming response that the Daily Post kept phone lines open an extra day. While phone polls are notoriously unreliable, this poll showed only a minimal 6.7% against the strike, a remarkable absence of public opposition.

Firefighters have taken petitions into the main shopping area and continue to be well received. It is the Labour authority which is taking the flak with many people blaming ‘new Labour’ for the dispute.

Both the Socialist Workers Party and Militant Labour leafleted the mass meeting with recommendations for developing the dispute. The SWP continues to call for all-out strikes but, though they had at least one member in the Central Hall meeting, no one spoke in favour of the proposal. ML, who produce Flame, a Fire Service journal, gave little lead. Their proposals were limited to ‘a solidarity one-day strike’, to be campaigned for only if Merseyside votes to escalate.

The strike seems likely to be drawn out with both sides looking to win. Escalation is necessary and may require an indefinite national strike. Such a call is a tactical judgement not a principle. The SWP has raised ‘strike now’ to a principle and ignores the political tasks that face firefighters.

Chris Jones
Former chair, Merseyside FBU