No surrender

John Prescott decided to up the ante in the firefighters' dispute - at the same time throwing down a challenge to the whole trade union movement. The deputy prime minister told the Commons on January 28 that he had concluded the Fire Brigades Union was "not serious" about reaching a negotiated settlement of its dispute over pay and conditions. Therefore the government is preparing to assume new legal powers to take control of the fire service and impose specific levels of pay, terms and conditions by reactivating the 1947 Fire Services Act, which was repealed in 1959. Clearly the Blair government is set on a collision course with the FBU and wants to see it not just defeated, but humiliated. The local authority employers gleefully suggested that Prescott's announcement would "concentrate minds at the FBU executive". Perhaps it has. The field of battle is certainly widening. Condemnation of Prescott's threat has come not only from Andy Gilchrist, the FBU general secretary, but from a whole range of trade union officials. After all, if union negotiating rights can be withdrawn from one section of public sector workers, why not from others? Amongst rank and file firefighters there was outrage and a determination to fight on. As Matt Wrack, FBU London regional organiser and Socialist Alliance partisan, told me, "The mood had taken a turn downwards with the lull between strikes - it was a bit more sombre. But it hardened up a lot after Prescott's speech." It seems that - for the moment at least - there is wide agreement amongst the membership that there is no alternative but to fight on. The Tories had been demanding a legal ban on strikes in the fire service and there had been much speculation that Prescott - supported by most of the left as the 'pro-union' candidate when he stood for the post of Labour deputy leader - would either attempt to use existing laws or introduce new legislation to have the strikes declared illegal, since they had become a threat to "public safety". However, there is another prong to the government's strategy. New Labour wants to give the impression that the FBU action is having little or no effect. It has "robust and tested" contingency plans: 177 red appliances as well as 827 Green Goddesses are on top of the situation. This is part of the battle for hearts and minds. So although, as Prescott himself has admitted, the dispute has so far cost more than £70 million - keeping the armed services on standby runs up a further £1 million per day - he blames firefighters for depriving some of the "most vulnerable in society". Supposedly cash intended for 'regeneration' has been diverted to the ministry of defence. Meanwhile insurance companies are said to be unhappy with the situation - there have been several claims that have been much larger than necessary as a result of delay or incompetence on the part of the fire service's army substitutes. Nevertheless the government hopes to demoralise firefighters by claiming the armed forces can easily cope during strike days and therefore stubbornly refuses to make any concession over the implementation of Sir George Bain's job-cutting, service-slashing recommendations - which have at their heart the reinforcing of managerial control over firefighters' working practices. A legal ban would not necessarily achieve this goal. Assuming the FBU abided by the law, the rank and file would surely resist the Bain changes on the ground. As part of its 'play it cool' strategy, the government refused to join in claims from the Tories and the media that the FBU is undermining preparations for a war on Iraq. Conservative defence spokesperson Bernard Jenkin branded firefighters "a disgrace to your country". Unfortunately, this put the union leadership on the back foot - how dare the Tories accuse firefighters of a lack of patriotism? After all, many of them are ex-servicemen who have served their country well. It should be self-evident that falling in behind the logic of chauvinism is a losing gambit. The strikes can hardly be said to be helping the 'war effort', can they? If the firefighters are to avoid defeat after a long-drawn out stalemate, they will have to adopt a political plan of action - that involves confronting the government head on. It is all very well, as comrade Wrack says, pointing to the hypocrisy of Jenkin's remark - "one minute we are heroes; the next unpatriotic militants" - but a winning strategy must incorporate a rounded opposition to the government on all fronts - this can only be on the basis of class, not national interests. Comrade Wrack told me: "There will be a lot of firefighters on the February 15 demonstration - we have circulated information about it and it has the London region's official backing." Several local FBU contingents are expected, as well as the national banner. However, he correctly pointed out that it was necessary to argue the case against the war, and for linking it to Blair's attacks at home, in a patient way - "there are a large number of ex-servicemen in the fire service" - and the call to oppose the war had been lost in some branches after some members stated that the union "shouldn't get involved". Of course, like it or not, the war and the strike are linked. The strike is political, since Blair regards it as essential to see off the FBU not only in order to impose new working practices and safeguard Gordon Brown's 'prudent' anti-working class fiscal policies, but in order to free up his entire armed forces to employ according to his number one priority. Firefighters are, of course, beginning to learn this lesson: "People are being politicised by the strike," says comrade Wrack. This may start off as 'They can afford money for a war, so why not for us?' but there is no reason why it should stop at that level. It is a short step from that to go on to ask just why Blair is so intent on joining Bush is his full-scale assault on Iraq. What class interests are involved? The FBU London region has also taken another very useful initiative. It has decided to convene a conference next month to which national, regional and workplace union organisations will be invited, with the aim of building rank and file solidarity with the firefighters. This is very much connected to moves to distance the union from New Labour. The FBU leadership has decided to postpone the 2003 annual conference, due in May, but there is no doubt that, when it actually takes place, its agenda will carry a variety of motions on the link with Labour. The leadership will have a job on its hands to hold on to the status quo. Calls for democratisation of the political fund, allowing it to be used to back candidates other than Labour, will be renewed - a number of branches are already clamouring for outright disaffiliation. The London region has recently recommended support for two Socialist Alliance candidates who are FBU members - in Haringey and Kentish Town. National policy at present still allows regions to request financial backing from the executive council for election candidates who are not representing the Labour Party. Although the EC will undoubtedly turn down the request for cash, it all adds to the pressure. All of this once more poses the question of the future of the SA itself. In a situation of fluidity, where there are so many political possibilities, why are we not attempting to build a viable party that can bring together all the struggles and movements under a single working class programme? Peter Manson