Take ownership of fire strike

Steve Godward is a divisional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (at present suspended over a disciplinary matter) and a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive. Peter Manson asked him about the stalled firefighters' dispute

What is the state of play? As you know, the first two periods of strike action were cancelled. The eight-day strike, due to begin on November 6, still stands, but talks have been taking place between the Fire Brigades Union and the National Joint Council, the national negotiating body for the fire service. The NJC represents the employers, who are the local authorities. Their money comes from council tax and they provide around one-fifth of the funds needed for the fire service, the rest coming from the government. To meet our claim will require either extra funds or savings being made. The employers will want these to come from cuts in conditions under the guise of 'modernisation'. If Blair and Brown say there is no extra money, then it will be back to that agenda - the loss of conditions and so on. But what's the use of £30,000 if there's no time to spend it? We already work two nine-hour day shifts, followed by two 15-hour nights, followed by three days off: 48 hours in eight days, the equivalent of a 42-hour week. A few years ago management tried to achieve 'modernisation' through the so-called 'smash and grab' campaign - they wanted to smash the union and grab back our conditions of service - which was successfully fought off. One fear going round the fire stations is that concessions will be given by the union, but Andy Gilchrist, FBU general secretary, has insisted that talks would be "on the issue of pay". In a union press release Andy is quoted as saying: "The FBU's pay claim has not changed and remains a claim for a professional wage of £30K" (October 28). In a branch circular of the same day Andy writes: ""¦ members should be clear that no deals have been done and no secret agreements have been reached "¦ The executive council will not agree any offer without giving the membership the chance to say whether it is acceptable." It's great to see the general secretary saying firmly what we are standing for. We need to focus on the figure of £30,000 and not get distracted with talk of percentages. The Labour Research Department has analysed the facts and come up with what we need. £30K is a realistic demand. Do you think the leadership was right to suspend the action? I haven't got all the facts - only the EC have those - but nothing focuses the mind like an ongoing dispute. The two days of action might have helped the union's 'industrial virgins' who haven't been on strike before. The suspension has caused some consternation. Half the members in my branch still turned up for what was supposed to be a pre-strike organising meeting. They were ready to walk out the door, but now it's been put on hold and the members are confused. The policy that came from conference is clear - £30K for firefighters and emergency control staff, parity for retained firefighters, and a new formula to link our pay with equivalent jobs. Previously we were regarded as blue collar, but now we are very, very light blue and our pay has fallen. Like many workers we have to use computers. On the other hand even office work is manual in one sense - repetitive strain injury proves that. At the moment I am waiting for the outcome of the negotiations with optimism - I don't mind being called foolish if I am proved wrong later. I believe the original motion for £30,000 came from the executive itself. Was it part of their rearguard action to keep the automatic link with Labour - showing that they weren't Blair's poodles? I think it was more to show that the union link was working: 'This is what we've got for you. It would have been impossible if the Socialist Alliance supporters had got their way.' It was actually tabled as an emergency motion at this year's conference - new pay figures had just been released. Because emergency motions can't be amended, I put in an alternative emergency motion, which included things like the word "unconditional". At the 2001 conference I had pointed out the changing role of firefighters, which meant we were playing catch-up. That's what £30K is. In the end I agreed to withdraw my motion - I knew it would have been defeated. But Andy Gilchrist used the word "unconditional" in his reply to the debate - that's why I feel I can trust him and the executive. Blair has called the leadership "Scargillite". How would you describe them? Basically they are left Labourites. Gilchrist is a Morning Star type. The "Scargillite" taunt is a cheap tactic, conjuring up the image of the miners' strike. Of course our dispute could end up as a public service 'miners' strike', but the EC is not Scargillite. It's not Stalinist. But Scargill talked about funding for his industry - exactly what we need. If Blair means the leadership is standing up for the members, then maybe it's a compliment. A lot has been said about the 'excessive' 40% claim costing the firefighters public support. That's the line of attack of the employers, government and press. In reality the claim amounts to about 38%, but the argument is not about percentages (40% of fuck all is fuck all), but £30,000. That's what we are worth. When you start talking about the rate for the job, in cash terms, it's a different story. For example, a police officer here in the Midlands gets £33K, plus allowances, plus overtime. We have had a ban on overtime since the last strike in 1975. It would have eroded the differential with other manual workers and depressed our real pay. What is your view on the action proposed by the RMT, etc? Do you see a link between this solidarity and the overall need for a political alternative? It's not only the rail unions. Unison has also called on its paramedics not to do firefighters' work during the dispute. Last weekend I spoke at an event organised by the Alliance for Workers' Liberty and I was also at the Socialist Party conference. I was talking with Mark Serwotka, who was at the AWL event. He was taking about accountability and the rank and file taking control of their own destiny. That means breaking the artificial link with the Labour Party - either through democratising the fund or a split, which is the SP line. Maybe in the future we will look to a split. The trade unions can either act as managers for the ruling class or representatives of the working class. What about rank and file control in the firefighters' dispute? I've got a gut feeling that it might be over. But if I'm wrong and the strike starts, then the rank and file will start to take ownership of the dispute. At the moment the leadership is very much in control, but this centralisation can be turned off. The rank and file have not had to do anything yet, apart from voting 'yes' with 87.6% in favour. That was the first job. The second job is to be prepared to walk out. Once a strike starts, it takes on a life of its own. Contacts are made with other local workplaces, support committees are set up, people start protecting their own. Once the phoney war is over, it is very hard to hold back. At the moment people feel deflated, but hopefully this can turn to elation. Andy and the EC say the claim is for the full £30K - that is the rate for the job. If they settled for something else, my question would be, why am I worth less now?