Fight any sell-out

Third phase strike action cancelled

The pernicious social role played by the labour bureaucracy as the 'labour lieutenants of the capitalist class', and the urgent need for a rank and file movement in our trade unions, are both being amply demonstrated by the cancellation of a third phase of the firefighters' "discontinuous" strike action. The executive council of the Fire Brigades Union, meeting on November 4, decided to cancel an eight-day strike due to begin on November 6, "to allow further talks on pay to take place" (FBU press release, November 4). Last week, the first two 48-hour strikes in the programme of action decided upon by a nine to one majority of the FBU's 52,000 members had been similarly shelved. Amazingly, this concession by the firefighters' leaders has taken place despite the fact that a week of talks with the local authority employers has produced no improvement on the four percent pay offer already on the table. The FBU's claim is for a rise of 40%, in order to secure a salary of £30,000 for all full-time and retained part-time fire crews and for emergency fire control operators. In fact, the FBU's statement is noticeable for its blatant attempt to blow up the 'achievements' in the negotiations to date: "The employers have accepted there will be a new pay formula for the fire service linked to the pay of workers in the associate, professional and technical grouping," general secretary Andy Gilchrist explains. In fact, agreement in principle on a new formula had already been reached some months ago. Moreover, now that the detail has been refined, it is clear that this 'gain' is not going to provide a powerful tool for the FBU in future negotiations. The APT grouping in the public sector - ie, primarily white collar council workers - have not been notable for ground-breaking pay rises in recent years. Similarly dressed up in positive garb is an admission that the employers had not accepted the claim for pay parity for the control staff: "They have asked us for more information regarding our claim for equal pay for emergency fire control staff, with a clear understanding that they will listen to our evidence for equal pay for these workers, who are predominantly women." In fact, there had been only one victory for the union side in the week-long talks: "The employers have also accepted our claim for pay parity for retained firefighters." But the FBU was always leaning on an open door with this element of the claim. Employment tribunal case law, bolstered by European Union directives, has rendered maintenance of differentials between full-time and part-time workers doing the same duties unsustainable. There can be no doubt as to the true motivation of brother Gilchrist and his co-thinkers in the FBU leadership. As Labourites, they are desperate to avoid strike action and a confrontation with Blair and the New Labour government. As Steve Godward, FBU activist and Socialist Alliance executive member, explained in the Weekly Worker, the £30,000 pay claim had been the initiative of Gilchrist, who had wanted to demonstrate that the link between the union and the Labour Party could be made to work in delivering gains to the membership (October 31). The move had come against the background of substantial gains in the campaign to democratise the union's political fund, opening up the road for union support for electoral candidates other than those of the Labour Party. SA supporters like comrades Godward and Matt Wrack had been prominent in this campaign. Gilchrist succeeded in knocking this back at this year's FBU conference, but he now looks increasingly in trouble within the wreckage of the thesis he advanced in order to secure his victory. Still sitting atop of the four percent pay offer, with his members branded as "criminals" by Blair's fire service minister Nick Raynsford, and Gilchrist himself dubbed a "Scargillite" by Blair, he is starting to resemble an emperor without any clothes. An increased pay offer is likely to be forthcoming, probably based upon an expedited recommendation from the 'independent' Bain inquiry into the fire service, whose proceedings the FBU is boycotting. It will, however, be one which the employers and the government insist has to be 'paid for' with changes in conditions, such as introduction of shift patterns that are even more onerous. Against this, pressure from below has forced the union executive council to make it clear that there will be no further cancellation of strikes - the next one is due to start on November 13 - unless an "acceptable" offer is forthcoming. In the clear understanding of militant rank and file firefighters, the meaning of "acceptable" includes 'unconditional'. Derek Hunter