Hold firm for unity

Firefighters from all over Scotland, with a contingent from Northern Ireland, held an enthusiastic demonstration in Glasgow on Saturday February 1. Around 5,000 attended, approximately four-fifths of whom were firefighters - a high turnout, given that there are only 5,000 firefighters in Scotland. This certainly disproves claims from the government that the Fire Brigades Union is losing the support of firefighters for their strike. The level of morale was high and was further boosted by the support from the public, many of whom took a break from their shopping, lined the route and waved FBU flags handed out by marchers. Tommy Sheridan addressed demonstrators and was well received before the march set off. Over 4,000 firefighters led the way, followed by 1,000 or more members of public sector unions, who together formed one of the biggest mass displays of working class solidarity seen in Scotland since the miners' strike At the rally in George Square there were other big names, including Elaine C Smith (Mary Doll of Rab C Nesbitt), Scottish TUC leader Bill Spiers and of course FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist. Speeches at rallies can often be good for sound bites with very little political content. However, everyone who spoke from the platform raised the issues of class, the wider political implications of the strike for public sector workers and voiced their opposition to the war with Iraq. The linking up of the FBU strike with the struggle against war shows that Blair can be fought on all fronts. The FBU rank and file were in militant mood. Every firefighter we spoke to had nothing but contempt for Prescott's intimidating threat to impose changes to their pay and working conditions through legislation. By raising the stakes in this way, Prescott has misjudged the strength of the FBU. He has failed to browbeat FBU members into submission: on the contrary, they now see their task as tackling the government head on. FBU members were quick to point out that if the government got away with this latest anti-working class and anti-trade union manoeuvre, other public sector workers would inevitably suffer the same fate. Thousands of firefighters across the country have decided to stop paying the political levy, a major source of New Labour finance. Such is their disgust with the undemocratic methods employed by the government to block their pay award, erode their working practices and slash jobs - the attempts to portray them as 'unpatriotic' in time of war, the deliberate government-backed media campaign to smear and discredit FBU members - the rank and file are beginning to recognise the political nature of their struggle. If this consciousness is to be sustained and developed, in the FBU in particular and across the working class as a whole, the need for a party which defends the interests of the entire working class in Britain and fights for an independent working class political programme becomes increasingly urgent. In the absence of such a party the danger is that disillusionment with Labour could translate into non-political trade unions. In Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party is the only political force that has consistently supported firefighters' pickets, organised public meetings and campaigned on behalf of the FBU. This has not gone unnoticed among the union's membership. We spoke to numerous firefighters who declared they would abandon their traditional support for Labour at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May and expressed their thanks and admiration for the solidarity of the SSP and in particular their respect for Tommy Sheridan. The FBU leadership, however, still clings to the Labour Party. Andy Gilchrist, addressing the Socialist Campaign Group, called on New Labour to be replaced with real Labour, whatever that means. The Labour leadership has proved itself historically to be a loyal servant of imperialism and defender of capital. In that, Blair's attacks on the firefighters and enthusiastic embrace of the US-led war on Iraq are totally in keeping with its past. But, despite what is happening in the FBU, in general Labour retains its working class base. That is why something more than the SSP's 'Leave Labour and join us' call is needed. We need a strategy aimed at breaking workers as a class from Labour and Labourism, not as individuals or tiny pockets of union members. As a party operating only in Scotland - and lumbered with a left nationalist programme at that - self-evidently the SSP cannot organise the whole working class in Britain against the UK state. The Socialist Alliance holds the key. However, while the SA's largest component, the Socialist Workers Party, has committed itself to working within a party north of the border, in England and Wales it is doing everything in its power to hold back the SA's transformation in that direction. In such circumstances, the hand of those within the SSP who oppose, for petty nationalist reasons, a single, all-Britain working class party is strengthened. The SSP rank and file are scathing of any suggestion that closer unity between the SSP and the SA in its current state is either desirable or possible. Meanwhile, nationalism even threatens the unity of the FBU's trade union struggle. The SSP leadership backed a call for the Labour-led Scottish executive to fund a 'Scottish' solution to the firefighters' dispute north of the border - as a means of dividing the employers across Britain, it was said. This tactic found no support among the rank and file FBU members we spoke to. They regard such a proposal as dangerous and divisive. They see their strength as residing in the unity of Scottish firefighters with their comrades throughout Britain. Ronnie Mejka, Sarah McDonald