Firefighters defy war fever

FBU delegates overturn leadership deal

Delegates to the Fire Brigades Union conference, summoned to Brighton to discuss the state of play in the long-running dispute over pay and conditions, overwhelmingly rejected the leadership recommendation that the latest offer from the employers be accepted. The deal is still to be put to branches, but the show of militancy by delegates, with Matt Wrack of London region to the fore, gives the clearest indication that the recall conference next month is certain to ditch it. The "logic" of this decision, as general secretary Andy Gilchrist pointed out, would mean further industrial action. Earlier, the FBU executive council had voted to call off the strike set for March 20 and by 12 votes to six decided to put the recommendation for acceptance to the March 19 conference. It seems that the EC majority felt that to go ahead with the latest action just as war was launched would be a "public relations disaster". In which case there was no alternative but to throw in the towel. Gilchrist conceded the offer was not the best his executive could have achieved, but the best "in the political situation we find ourselves in". Delegates were furious because the offer appeared virtually identical to the one rejected not a fortnight previously: 16% over three years, tied to unspecified 'modernisation' reforms (cuts in jobs and services along the lines of the Bain report). Pious words of "consensus" and "consultation" had been appended. One delegate said the EC deserved a "damn good kicking" for what a leaflet handed out by Socialist Alliance activists described as "abject surrender" to a "rubbish" offer. Strikes had been 100% solid, but there can be no doubt that the vacillations of the FBU leadership had resulted in much confusion and a certain measure of demoralisation amongst the rank and file. It is therefore encouraging that delegates stood firm and told the EC where to get off in no uncertain terms. The conference broke up in disarray almost as soon as it was convened, when the standing orders report was unanimously rejected. After the resulting four-hour interruption there was little doubt which way the decision would go. The outcome of the conference has a certain irony. Last week, in response to the collapse of the previous round of talks between the FBU and employers, Whitehall had implied that the union leadership was dragging along an unwilling rank and file in pursuit of its own private, no doubt sinister, agenda and the membership should therefore demand the chance to vote for what the EC had rejected. Dangerous territory, one would think, for Labour spin-doctors to have strayed into at this point in time - a leadership pursuing policies unpopular with the majority and a call on that majority to demand a new vote: what if that were applied to the war on Iraq? No wonder the question of democratising the political fund is now widespread within the FBU. Labour ministers have regularly been wheeled out in newspapers and on TV for their Blairite rent-a-quote, condemning the FBU and doing a hatchet job on the firefighters in general. They are rightly exasperated by the thought that their money could be used to help re-elect the very Labour ministers who now denounce them for demanding decent pay and wanting to defend their working conditions. As Albie Lithgow, a leading FBU militant, said at a recent public meeting called by Merseyside Socialist Alliance, "You don't take a kicking for someone, get up and then give them a few bob for their troubles." This mood is certainly to be welcomed. The organised working class as a whole must learn from the bitter experience of the FBU at the hands of 'its' party. Such - entirely justified - indignation has, however, led to some trade unionists advocating not the democratisation of the political fund, but its abolition. Many firefighters have voted with their feet and simply stopped paying. However, the political fund represents - albeit, for communists, very inadequately and in a highly contradictory manner - the reaching out of the working class simply as a class in itself under capitalism to something more, to becoming a class for itself, seeking to remake society in its own image. We must fight against syndicalist or quasi-syndicalist apoliticism vigorously. Likewise, the call for immediate disaffiliation from the Labour Party should be opposed. The proposal made at the People's Assembly by RMT general secretary Bob Crow in relation to the war should be extended: a minimum platform should be presented to every Labour candidate outlining conditions for support - trade union money and backing for Labour candidates should be made conditional. FBU leaders are behaving "like Saddam's friends", we were told at the weekend by shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin. Such slanders are, of course, just that - slanders. Statements like this are to be expected from Tories and the Murdoch gutter press. We can fully expect any strike action by workers during the Iraq war to be fiercely denounced by Labour ministers too - now is the time when there ought to be 'national unity' in support of 'our' troops. It is the job of communists to explode the myth of 'the national interest' and the supposed commonality between workers and our exploiters. It is the job of communists, too, not to deny the political content of the strike - it has been politicised first and foremost by the other side. It is axiomatic for Marxists that domestic and foreign policy are but two sides of the same coin - the interests of British capital are to be pursued at home and abroad. The spontaneous link made by many workers (and the firefighters in particular) between the industrial policy of the government and the Iraq crisis is an encouraging sign that wider layers of the class are beginning to realise this. We should strive, through patient explanation and persuasion, to extend and deepen this process. The firefighters' strike began as an offensive strike, perhaps the first of its kind for some years - the council workers' strike last summer was in response to a derisory pay offer (likewise the numerous strikes on the railways) and the actions taken by postal workers were rearguard actions in defence of jobs and service. Here, however, a section of the working class stood up to demand a substantial improvement in pay. Undoubtedly the working class is beginning to move - slowly and in fits, but there is definitely movement - at a time of mass action against a deeply unpopular war. In these conditions, where there is everything to play for, it is crucial that we proceed with caution. Much as we might like to see an all-out strike, led by a great mass of revolutionary firefighters with the explicit aim of tying down Blair's troops, we must strive to defend the unity of firefighters and avoid premature calls to set up the FBU as the political vanguard they clearly are not. Similarly a general strike - whether in support of the firefighters or against the war - simply cannot be delivered, given the existing level of consciousness. The call, then, should not be made at this point. Of course, it is not the job of communists to simply follow: we should strive to lead - but it is a crime to play with revolution. The working class needs sober analysis, real leadership, not the revolutionary pose. These are exciting times, no doubt. Communists must constantly learn from and think on the basis of the most recent events. Things are changing almost by the hour and the left is being tested by the tempo of events. We must make sure we are up to the task. David Moran * Lobby Labour: Firefighters' protest at Labour's Dundee conference, Friday March 21. Assemble 9.30am, City Square