From attack to defence

Chris Jones, former Merseyside FBU brigade chair and a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Group, looks at the questions of leadership raised by the firefighters' dispute

The Fire Brigades Union dispute has moved decisively into a new phase in the first month of 2003. The offensive led by the FBU executive against the erosion of firefighters' and control staff's pay has now become a defensive battle. Quietly the 40% claim has been allowed to fall out of sight. Now the 16% deal phased over two years, first tabled by the employers in July 2002, has become the favoured option. Symbolically the Morning Star has removed the 40% headline claim from its banner on the front page. The dispute is now as much about saving the conditions of FBU members and existing levels of fire cover for the public as it is about pay. This is the root of the FBU's refusal to negotiate whilst the employers insist on acceptance of 'modernisation' and the Bain report as a precondition to a negotiated deal on pay. Following the worrying phoney war over Christmas, during which the union membership were left to drift, the FBU has begun to set out a policy of long-term guerrilla action taking the dispute forward into 2003. The FBU dispute has become a test of the entire trade union movement and the attitudes that workers and trade unionists need to adopt to New Labour and the government. It is also a test of the new breed of left trade union leaders - the 'awkward squad' - and Andy Gilchrist's leadership in particular. The question that is most commonly asked by firefighters and their friends and allies is 'What sense do you make of it?' - referring to the FBU leadership's tactics. The clarity of leadership that launched the campaign in 2002 was lost as successive strikes were called off and the Acas process took negotiations behind closed doors. Above all we have to assess the current phase of workers' struggle in relation to New Labour and the historic crisis in the 'Labour and trade union movement'. In general terms the success or failure of the dispute rests on the capacity and willingness of the wider trade union movement to face up to the New Labour government over their failure to meet even the mildest aspirations of the organised working class. In terms of the practical questions facing firefighters, a successful resolution of the dispute rests on the ability of activists within the FBU to generate an organisational capacity that will allow the membership to act independently of the leadership should that prove necessary. FBU claim The claim was initiated by a report to the annual conference in 2002. The statement that preceded the report at the conference of 2001 recognised that "'Free collective bargaining' does not exist in the public sector. Successive governments use public sector pay as an economic 'regulator' in respect of controlling spending and thus influence inflation and growth" (FBU statement). This comment cuts to the heart of the issues raised during the dispute. The legitimate demands over pay raised by the leadership were well supported by FBU members and achieved significant public backing - notably more resilient than that achieved in 1977. The problem for the union was that the claim contradicted the long-term strategy of the New Labour government. That strategy relied upon minor increases in expenditure on key public services associated with performance requirements that ground out large increases in productivity. In short the government could not afford to allow the tiny increases in public expenditure to be leached away in pay awards. The decision to move away from the pay formula, agreed following the strike of the winter of 1977-78, was a difficult one. The FBU knew from the start that the battle would be a "protracted and complex process" and that the employers "will certainly insist on something" (FBU statement). The turn of events with the government-sponsored Bain report and demands for 'modernisation', interpreted as cuts in staffing and erosion of conditions, should have been no surprise to the FBU leadership or the activists amongst the rank and file. The employers had a detailed offer to table in July 2002. This would have produced a 16% rise in a phased deal over two years and was part of a complete package that recognised the need for a new pay formula and reviewed key conditions of service. The deal due to be tabled on July 9 was pulled after intervention by John Prescott. From this point the offers tabled by the employers have been ratcheted down under pressure from the government and latterly in line with the Bain report. The FBU leadership was initially highly successful in projecting the 40% demand, but it has proved unable to maintain its position under pressure. The 16%, offered in July, has become the de facto ceiling for the FBU's pay claim. Full circle - fire last time The strike in 1977 was won against a reluctant executive and the open opposition of the general secretary of the FBU, Terry Parry. The pressure came from below and it was capable of being expressed in independent action in opposition to left leaders. In May 1977 the Merseyside brigade began an unofficial work-to-rule, led by an unofficial leadership. The dispute, under pressure from Terry Fields and the brigade officials, was due to be called off when the employers decided to issue an ultimatum that led to the sacking of firefighters who refused to go back to normal working prior to the agreed date. In the face of the sackings an unofficial strike began, organised through a mass meeting and enforced by a flying picket. This action was carried out against the opposition of the local leadership that included Terry Fields - later to become one of the Militant members elected as a Labour MP. When the strike began in November 1977 the strike was given no support by the TUC and public backing was extremely limited. This was a dispute driven by the membership against opposition at all levels of the trade union movement and against a Labour government. The strike was settled without achieving its aim of breaching the 10% pay limit. The settlement was opposed by a significant minority of the FBU membership and could be described as a qualified defeat. However, the pay formula insulated firefighters' pay from the worst pressures of the following years. The agreement reduced working time from a 48-hour to a 42-hour week. It is this shift pattern that is so exercising politicians and the press today. Perhaps most importantly the strike formed part of a wider settlement that spanned the military and police. The police in particular became the key to the Thatcher government's assault on the working class. The largely accidental association with the police pay agreement helped to shelter the FBU deal. Amongst firefighters the qualified defeat of 1978 began to appear as a victory. The strike had delivered the 42-hour week (though this was already in the wings before) and it had ensured that the national scheme and conditions of service were preserved at a time when other public sector workers were losing their own national conditions of service. This proved to be a highly effective defensive recipe, when combined with assertive and well organised local union structures. In a series of defensive battles beginning in the late 1980s the FBU saw off attempts by a number of aggressive chief officers pursuing a 'new public sector management' agenda. The local fire authorities that lined up with the new-style chief officers were mainly large metropolitan authorities under Labour control. The New Labour authorities and the chief officers allied to reduce the influence of the FBU. They could not break the pay formula, so they concentrated their fire on eroding the scheme and conditions of service. Repeatedly aspects of the national joint council (NJC) agreements were challenged, and guerrilla warfare ensued between local FBU officials and employers. The employers insisted on their 'right to manage' and tried to narrow the scope of the national conditions, insisting that whole areas previously negotiated would only be subject to consultation in future. As an FBU brigade official in Merseyside, I was faced first hand by one of the new breed of chief officers and the New Labour wannabes controlling the fire authority. The disputes and grievance procedures set down in the 'grey book' (the NJC conditions of service) were routinely ignored, so that disputes could only be resolved by resorting to industrial action. Gradually the FBU membership became educated and developed a disciplined resolve in the face of a series of employers' provocations, demonstrating a willingness to act when local officials gave a lead. At times members would act independently, but this did not give rise to a rank and file organisation. Action was largely confined to the FBU branches. This is the base on which the current dispute rests. It is highly uneven, since many brigades had not previously been tested by regular local activity and attacks from the employers. In contrast, brigades like Merseyside have a 10-year record of resisting chief officers and aggressive New Labour fire authorities. In Merseyside the last dispute culminated only last year in the exit of the chief officer under mysterious circumstances. On entering the current dispute the FBU was unevenly prepared for long-term defensive action and the discipline and activism that is required to maintain such a dispute. In 1977 the FBU was faced with a Labour government that had a formal wages policy restricting pay awards to 10%. This was in the context of years of falling real wages in the public sector, and the fire service in particular, as inflation eroded spending power. One estimate put the fall in real wages for firefighters at 15% between 1974 and 1977. The build-up to the strike had seen loss of spending power and years of campaigning and the development of unofficial action beginning in a number of brigades years earlier, notably London in 1969 and Essex in 1970. As late as 1976 Terry Parry was still defending the 'social contract', claiming that the fight against inflation took priority over firefighters' sectional interests. The growing opposition to the leadership found that in order to succeed the FBU minority had to organise at all levels of the union. The regions that supported industrial action had a series of unofficial meetings and rank and file groups sprang up in some areas such as Essex and Merseyside. The mood was captured in 1977 by National Rank and File Fireman, a publication and organisation closely linked to the Socialist Workers Party. Firefighters' pay has only begun to fall in recent years and the decision to abandon the pay formula in 2002 was a balanced judgement, not a clear necessity. The pressure for higher pay is regionalised and comes from younger firefighters in the south who are faced by impossibly high housing costs. The campaign did not well up from below, but is led from the top by the FBU executive, Andy Gilchrist in particular. The union has little recent history of unofficial action and most disputes have been channelled through the FBU at local level. The local leaderships are only loosely organised and there is little coordination between the most militant sections in various brigades, there is no genuine rank and file organisation at local or national level and the left grouping that organises at the higher levels of the union is a flabby, loose organisation of the majority, unable to form a significant block that could provide both criticism of and support for the leadership. The significant difference between 1977-78 and 2002-03 is that the current dispute is led top-down and was not fed by an organised pressure from below. The national strike of 1977 followed the government imposition of the 10% limit in July 1977. The FBU, which had already begun pay negotiations, sought exemption, but the government refused. This was not the first time that the FBU had fallen foul of pay limits that scuppered a deal already under negotiation. A recall conference in November 1977 heard the FBU executive oppose a strike and call for further negotiations. London, Merseyside and Strathclyde moved strike motions and the executive received almost no support. The London resolution calling for a strike ballot was lost on a card vote and a two-to-one majority carried the motion for strike action from November 14, moved by Strathclyde and seconded by Merseyside. The one-third opposition included London's 6,000 firefighters, who came behind the strike call within 24 hours. The wider trade union movement and the TUC were committed to the Labour government's pay policy. On December 2 the TUC rejected the FBU call for a campaign against it. This treachery was supported by the 'left' on the general council, including Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, architects of the social contract. Public support for the FBU fell and after four weeks 70% believed the FBU should settle. The army appeared to be more capable than expected and no major incident dented that impression. In 2002-03 the dispute has the support of the TUC. This support is not without cost, as it is TUC influence that has drawn the FBU in towards Acas and arbitration. The significance of TUC support is that it indicates a sea change in union relations with Labour. The FBU also has the vigorous support of some of the new trade union leaders, Bob Crow of the RMT in particular. Public opinion has continued to be much more sympathetic to the firefighters - a recent poll, as the January strikes began, showed 63% still supported the FBU. The 'modernisation' agenda pushed by the government has transformed what could have been a sectional dispute into a key public sector concern. For example, a week prior to the white paper on higher education, a correspondent in the Times Higher drew out the link between firefighters and academic staff through the issue of 'modernisation'. The FBU is potentially in a much stronger political position than in 1977, when the wide generalisation of the 'winter of discontent' followed the FBU dispute by one year. The government faces difficult negotiations with a series of other public sector workers and it is still possible that it will have to fight a battle on several fronts - at home as well as abroad with the war drive on Iraq. Employers' offensive The Bain report is the outcome of a long process. The three knights, Sir George Bain, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Anthony Young - nicknamed 'Camelot' by the FBU - were novices in fire service matters. Two academics and an ex-TUC president took three months to draw up the full report and simply brought together in one document an agenda that has been developing in employers' circles for almost 20 years. The report records their 'surprise' at how far the fire service lagged behind what they describe as "best practice" in the public and private sector. This is simply shorthand for a service that is not business-ready and privatisation-prepared. An article in Red Pepper (January 2003) notes that the Group 4 Falck company is positioning itself in preparation for bidding to run privatised sections of the new fire service, the proposed new joint controls being an obvious first step. Group 4 Falck, the self-proclaimed second largest security services provider worldwide, is an organisation that currently runs the Danish equivalent of the Automobile Association and most of the Danish fire service apart from some larger metropolitan areas. 'Modernisation' in the fire service is closely linked to the privatisation of key government services and the neoliberal agenda for the 21st century. This is far from an isolated dispute. The 'modernisation' agenda also begins from the idea that savings in the overall fire service budget can only be obtained by reducing the pay and conditions of workers, removing what employers describe as 'restrictive practices'. These practices, such as a ban on pre-arranged overtime, are the bedrock of a safe and efficient public service. The government claim that the FBU stands in the way of a modern fire service is openly contradicted by its own white paper, written in 2001. The white paper noted: "The fire service is one of the most consistently high-performing services in local government. The fire service has already made considerable progress towards modernisation. This 'succeeding' service is highly effective in its work of responding to fire and other emergencies and widely admired by the public. Certainly the audit commission performance indicators for 1999-2000, published in January 2001, fully bear it out. "At the same time, the role of the fire service has begun to change, essentially from a reactive to a proactive one; and the next few years will see a major transformation in the way fire brigades deliver services to the public." The cynical attack on the FBU and the fire service is at one and the same time an attempt to demolish a pillar of the 1945 welfare state settlement. The first national strike took place against the backdrop of a wave of militancy that reached its highest point in terms of union membership and strike days in 1978-79. This wave crashed against a world recession that began in the mid-1970s. In the UK the wave of militancy peaked at the very point when the employers offensive became official government policy with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Throughout the early years of the Thatcher government, despite assaults on general trade union rights and set-piece battles with key sections of workers, the FBU remained largely untouched. The metropolitan county councils, in particular the Greater London Council, had relatively good relations with the FBU. The GLC with FBU support began to recruit significant numbers of women and firefighters from minority ethnic and racial groups. But the fire service could not remain unaffected by the general change in relations between government, capital and labour for long. The first significant attack came in the form of the abolition of the metropolitan county councils in 1986. In the late 1980s the FBU came under growing pressure from local employers and chief officers. Repeatedly chief officers began local reforms, only to find them blocked by a combination of trade union action and political pressure applied through local Labour politicians. The Labour Party had begun to change. The Militant Tendency, including Terry Fields, a key figure in the 1977-78 strike and by then a Labour MP, was expelled, as the party moved to the right. This coincided with the more assertive management approach. In line with the general shift towards more aggressive 'new management techniques', fire service managers, especially chief officers, took a more assertive stance. This was reflected in an increase in local disputes and was seen correctly by the FBU as an emerging national pattern. In 1992 the FBU published Their business or our service: a report on new management initiatives in the fire service. Throughout this period local developments were dependant upon national factors. The greater power in the hands of chief officers was at least in part the result of an assertion of central control by the home office. From 1989 chief officers could only be appointed if they had completed a brigade command course. The home office had a pervasive influence in the selection of candidates for this course. The degree of relative autonomy attained by councillors after the abolition of the county councils further strengthened the position of the chief officers. In the joint boards that were set up, councillors were only indirectly accountable to electors through city and district councils. The role of the government inspectorate was changed to include 'over provision' and 'value for money' within their brief, and in 1986 the Audit Commission issued its first occasional paper Value for money in the fire service. This began the process that culminated in the Bain report by noting that there were only limited opportunities for savings under existing arrangements and recommending a review of "rigid employment conditions". The local authorities were increasingly under the remote control of central government through performance indicators and financial constraints. The agenda for government 'modernisation' is at least 17 years old and the mechanisms for centralised government control of the service have been developed over a number of years. New Labour in local politics has marginalised the FBU. Brigade and regional officials that once met politicians in Labour Party caucuses prior to council meetings now wait outside while the chief officer briefs the senior councillors of the local government 'cabinet'. Disputes, however, continue at a local level and the FBU has been successful at concentrating its national resources on significant local targets. The most recent of these was the campaign against Malcolm Saunders, the chief officer on Merseyside. In what was viewed as a high-risk strategy the FBU targeted Saunders and called openly for his removal in a campaign that included a prominent poster outside a city centre fire station. Saunders went in what remain mysterious circumstances, well rewarded with a medical pension. Such victories may have made it appear to the FBU that it had significant power to influence events. The 1990s had taught the FBU to fight alone without significant political or wider trade union support. But the question remained, would this be enough in a major national dispute? Labour and Labourism Well before the pay claim was made the membership of the FBU passed a resolution calling on the executive to open up the political fund to organisations other than the Labour Party. A 'new' Labour was clearly in evidence in the FBU's dealings with councillors and in disputes in areas like Merseyside long before New Labour was elected nationally. The local councillors who controlled the fire service at a local level had relative autonomy after the abolition of county councils and used this to pursue an agenda that excluded the FBU and drew ever closer to the chief officers. Just as the dispute of 1977/8 was prefigured in local disputes and an increasingly assertive rank and file, the 2002/3 dispute has been anticipated by the growth of employers' offensives at a local level. The call for opening the political fund to other parties was the direct result of local FBU experiences with New Labour. Resolution 101, carried in opposition to the executive at the 2001 annual conference, read: "Conference notes with concern the continuing attacks on the fire service by Labour-controlled authorities. Therefore, conference agrees that the Fire Brigades Union political fund will in future be used to support candidates and organisations whose policies are supportive of the policies and principles of this union. This may include candidates and organisations who stand in opposition to New Labour so long as they uphold policies and principles in line with those of the Fire Brigades Union. "When considering any request for assistance, the Fire Brigades Union and regional committees should carefully examine the policies and record of all such individuals and organisations. "Conference instructs the executive council to prepare any necessary subsequent rule changes for annual conference 2002." The executive did not act on the 2001 resolution and campaigned so that the position was reversed at the 2002 annual conference that also endorsed the pay campaign. There is a clear relationship between the pressure on the executive to break from exclusive links to Labour and the top-down militancy over pay. The pay campaign took the heat off the failure to act on links to Labour. In the light of the dispute there is no doubt that the issue will return to conference this year and that the FBU will review its links with Labour amidst calls for both disaffiliation and democratisation of the political fund. The 2003 conference is unlikely to take place in May - it will probably be postponed until after the current dispute - but, whenever it comes, the question of the trades unions' political alliance with Labour will come under the spotlight. The strain in relations with the Labour Party is not restricted to the FBU and it signifies the erosion of the historic and political compromise that the Labour Party represented. The Independent reported on January 24 that union leaders were refusing to sign up to a £40 million handover of their members' cash until an accommodation was reached with the FBU. The dispute raises the possibility of firefighters leading a campaign throughout the trade union and Labour conference season attacking New Labour for its role and calling for other union members to join with them in calling for the democratisation of the political fund. Historically Labour held out the prospect of workers being able to elect representatives to parliament and to form a government. The political compromise enshrined by Labour was that the empire and the constitutional arrangements of the UK state would be left largely untouched. Labour made no serious calls for abolishing the monarchy or constitutional reform. In return the establishment, the ruling class of the empire, would allow Labour to compete for election and form governments when able to do so. Labour set out to be a responsible mainstream party, loyal to the rules of the game. In effect it became the 'second 11' for the establishment, called in to head off serious political discontent or revolt. Social and economic reform became Labour's sole agenda, while political reforms were either quietly dropped or remained token commitments, never central to Labour's activity. It is only under New Labour that constitutional reform has returned to the agenda, in a liberal guise. It came at the very point when New Labour was unable to deliver significant social and economic reform. This compromise worked while Labour could deliver on its social and economic programme, but in the 1970s government initiatives undermined this relationship. The social contract and In place of strife broke the consensus and radicalised a significant layer of workers. Rocked by defeat, Labour in the 1980s debated whether to make serious commitments and stick to them - a position identified with Tony Benn - or to reduce commitments down to what could be delivered - a position later identified with Tony Blair and New Labour. The revision of policy in New Labour was associated with a distancing from the trade unions. The FBU experienced the practical effects of the withdrawal of Labour from the former alliance. The FBU was forced to fight against Labour local politicians, many of whom they had helped to fund in running for office. For a second time in a quarter of a century the FBU was faced with a national dispute against a Labour government. In 1977, while many FBU members were disenchanted with Labour, union activists became engaged in the fight to strengthen the left inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. In 2003 this option is no longer on offer, as there is no viable Labour left opposition to the Blair government or to New Labour policies within the party. The structure of New Labour has been gradually closed off from union influence at all levels. In short the FBU and the trade union movement no longer have a party to represent their interests in parliament and beyond. Andy Gilchrist grappled with this point in his presentation to the Socialist Campaign Group. He argued that the unions needed to remove New Labour and replace it with 'real' Labour. The genuineness of these sentiments cannot be doubted, but the lack of support he received following his statement was palpable and little has been heard from him on this topic since. It remains a significant weakness of the left of the trades unions that they find it difficult to openly break with Labour. Question of leadership It looks increasingly likely that the FBU leadership is prepared to settle for something like the 16% offered in July 2002, as long as it is not explicitly tied to acceptance of Bain. It is also likely that such a deal may retain the headline figures on pay but fail to retain the detail that made the deal initially so attractive to the FBU leadership, such as the promise of a new pay formula. There is still a real danger that the government is intent on breaking the FBU and that it will insist on pay being linked to full acceptance of Bain. The FBU dispute raises questions of leadership in a number of distinct, but related ways. Primarily the working class now lacks a party of its own. The search is now on for a replacement. This cannot be achieved by a simple declaration of the type that Arthur Scargill made with the formation of the Socialist Labour Party, or that numerous left groups made when they became the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Socialist Party or the Socialist Workers Party. A new party must develop from the organic layers of leadership within the working class. It will require a recomposition of the existing left and a revision and renewal of their politics. A new unity and a new politics can only be achieved by overcoming the historic differences that separate the Labour, communist and Trotskyist traditions. I would suggest that such a reformation should take place around the central idea that working class aspirations cannot be met within the political framework of the constitutional monarchy: the working class requires a democratic and republican state. It will also require a significant break from Labour. Such a break will not occur without the maximum unity of the left outside of Labour. Unity of the left is now a central question. The Socialist Alliance is the best placed formation to lead in this process. It can only do so by raising its game. As it stands, the Socialist Alliance is no more than an electoral front and it is routinely bypassed by its component organisations when they intervene in issues such as the FBU dispute or the anti-war movement. Red Watch, the unofficial FBU news sheet, has been largely an SWP initiative, and the SA members inside the FBU have not caucused during the dispute. The Socialist Alliance must make it an urgent priority to coordinate the work of its members through trade union fractions, acting as the core of broader left groupings. The SA needs to develop as a viable force around which a party could form. As an urgent priority it needs its own press and paper. The Socialist Alliance should commit itself to the aim of forging a new workers' party, and engage with as many other left groups as possible to broaden the alliance beyond its present supporters. Secondly the FBU dispute raises the question of leadership within the trade unions and the relationship of that leadership to politics. The unions are faced with a New Labour government that has pursued policies of privatisation in the public sector and has refused to repeal the anti-trade union legislation passed during the previous Tory administrations. Trade unionists continue to finance New Labour despite recent reductions in contributions from several major unions. The trade union leadership must now be prepared to break its ties with Labour. Union members must force the union leadership to make every penny paid out in political contributions conditional on support for the aims and aspirations of union members. The current crop of 'awkward squad' leaders remains a very mixed bunch. Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka stand out as principled left leaders who oppose New Labour. Andy Gilchrist has not been able to make that break in a clear way during the FBU dispute and this has hindered his leadership, especially following his intervention at the Socialist Campaign Group meeting in Manchester. The role of left leaders will, however, depend on more than their overt political leanings. The FBU may now be faced with a period of struggle at a national level of the same type that occurred locally in the 1990s. If the dispute is resolved with an accommodation on pay and no direct link to Bain, then the employers are likely to keep coming and the FBU will have to defend itself against a series of coordinated assaults. If the government imposes a settlement, then the FBU will be forced to fight a rearguard action over many months, perhaps years, which will involve continuing calls for industrial action. In both cases an active membership and an effective leadership at all levels of the union will be needed. No matter how good the leadership is, without the support of an effective rank and file its action is likely to fail. The membership will need to develop a capacity for action on the basis of the early shop stewards movement - official if we can, unofficial if we must. The question of rank and file organisation is not separate from the capacity of existing left leaders to fight: it is fundamental to their ability to act. Just as the 1984-85 miners' strike heralded the final breaking up of the last traditional bastion of the industrial strength of Labour, so the FBU strikes herald the end of the old political Labour. It may not happen immediately, but the die has been cast. The working class now needs a new political party to represent it. Labour has dropped the crown. The question is, who can pick it up?