Support the firefighters

No one should doubt the political importance of the firefighters' dispute. This is not a straightforward clash between employees and employers. Rather it is a struggle between the government and a strategically well placed section of the working class which has the backing of the broad labour movement. This has been fully recognised by the Socialist Alliance. In a unanimously passed resolution the SA's executive committee resolves to mobilise in support of the firefighters: "We recognise," reads the resolution, "this dispute as one of the most significant in many years - a potential 'public service miners' strike'." The comparison is valid. The firefighters dispute has the potential to challenge the government and trigger wider industrial and political action. There certainly exists a popular mood of anger against the Blair government within the trade unions and the class. In other respects, however, the Fire Brigades Union's dispute is very different from the miners' 1984-85 Great Strike. Firstly, it is an offensive, rather than a defensive, action. From the viewpoint of capital such a strike, if it were successful, would unleash a deluge. Countless others would follow, No wonder Blair says the 40% claim is "wrong and dangerous". Secondly, the FBU's campaign begins with a high degree of unity. The miners were severely handicapped from the first day of their mammoth strike by a serious split, which eventually led to the formation of a breakaway scab union. The 87.6% majority in favour of the 36 days of discontinuous strike action, which begins on Tuesday October 29, is an impressive indicator of the firefighters' unity and resolve. Moreover, the first skirmish in the war of morale ended with a decisive victory for the union side. Media news editors trumpeted the supposed potential of a 'Democratic Union of Mineworkers' in the shape of the Retained Firefighters Union. Yet, though the RFU's executive condemned the strike decision, there is also a pledge not to cross picket lines. More importantly the RFU has less than 1,000 members, mainly in rural areas. In contrast the FBU's 16,000 part-time firefighters voted in the strike ballot and overwhelmingly supported both the action and the claim (which includes a demand for full pay parity of retained and full-time personnel). Furthermore, other unions are skilfully finding legal loopholes in order to deliver secondary - ie, solidarity - action and pursue their own objectives. Both the RMT and Aslef have made calls for the closure of deep tube stations in London which are only served by lifts. The GMB has raised concerns about its members working in the chemical and nuclear industries. Those who say it is not safe without professional fire cover are to be supported if they walk away from their jobs. The same message has come from Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Amicus. Despite the draconian anti-trade unions laws there exists a certain room for manoeuvre under health and safety legislation to bring out millions of other workers on the FBU's strike days. This must be encouraged. In one other respect the FBU seems well placed. Meeting on October 22, the TUC has given 'full backing'. Yet let us not forget the record of the TUC - passing fine resolutions one day and then the next day seeking a rotten deal in the interests of class peace. As all militant miners and those active in the miners' support groups will remember, the TUC in 1984-85 was absolutely treacherous. In the face of an all-out assault directed by Margaret Thatcher and her government the TUC delivered plenty of speeches but only a drip-feed of solidarity. Norman Willis and the majority of the TUC had no liking for Arthur Scargill and positively feared a miners' victory. Today's TUC is no different. If anything, in fact, it is worse. Eighteen years of being treated with contempt by the Tory government still rankles. The TUC has no wish to see a return of the Conservatives and the instincts of the trade union bureaucracy inevitably lead it towards fixing some kind of deal. In other words, the TUC is quite capable of stabbing the firefighters in the back. That goes not only for the right. It is true for the left too. Bob Crow, Mick Rix, Alan Simpson and co might be talking tough today. But what about tomorrow? That is why we say the rank and file should only trust their leaders to the extent that they fight wholeheartedly in the interests of the working class as a whole. Meantime what is needed in each union and each industry is the independent organisation of the militant minority. That includes the FBU. General secretary Andy Gilchrist cannot be allowed to compromise away the 40% pay claim and the £30,000 minimum. We can only ensure that by organising a rank and file movement. The strike must not be left to the executive. There must be strike committees elected at each fire station for the duration. They should take on the responsibility for explaining the firefighters' case to other trade unionists and the general public locally. Speakers must be sent out to encourage the organisation of solidarity action. Firefighters' support groups would be an excellent idea to serve as an auxiliary force and could be 'twinned' with fire stations. The government is rattled. Local government minister Nick Raynsford summoned Andy Gilchrist to see him on Monday and sprang an ambush using a TUC 'code of conduct'. This had been agreed in 1979, following the widespread public services strikes during the famous 'winter of discontent'. Paragraph six of this code states: "Generally unions already recognise the need to provide emergency or essential services and to maintain plant and equipment during industrial disputes, and the TUC considers that such action is vitally necessary." The code had been cooked up by the TUC and James Callaghan's Labour government, which was under attack by the Tories. Naturally most union leaders had forgotten it existed and now consider it an irrelevance. But it remains a remote possibility that in the course of the fightfighters' dispute or its aftermath Blair might contemplate legislation which ban strikes in emergency services. The war with Iraq could certainly provide an ideal excuse. Public opinion would be whipped up into chauvinistic hysteria and strikes under such circumstances could be branded as 'unpatriotic' and playing into the hands of 'the enemy'. That is why politics are vital. In their own interests firefighters have to oppose the war. No to US-UK imperialism. No to the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad. The main enemy is at home. Part and parcel of that recognition must be an end to the FBU's automatic support for the Labour Party in elections. The union's funds must be democratised. Firefighters should have the right to support those, such as the Socialist Alliance, who actually back them in their fight and campaign for the repeal of all anti-trade union laws. Everyone know what side the Labour Party and the Labour government are on. They are on the side of the employers and the capitalist system of exploitation. Workers need their own party, a party that fights for socialism. The Socialist Alliance represents a step in that direction. Derek Hunter