FBU in turmoil

Last week's Fire Brigades Union conference overwhelmingly rejected the executive's attempt to end their long-running dispute because of the war. London regional officer Matt Wrack discusses the new situation

The March 19 conference had been called to discuss the employers' 'final offer'. This had come out of the process agreed to by the union leadership that ended after four weeks of talks. Branches across the country had discussed this offer, which the FBU executive council had recommended be rejected (but which was in fact amended within three days in favour of a second 'final offer' - a few words were changed). Of particular concern were the strings attached. These were to end all current national agreements on hours of work and duty systems and give the right to individual fire brigades to introduce their own duty systems at each separate location, if they so choose. This would include an obligation on individual firefighters to work anywhere, at any time, on any duty within their competence, as determined by the fire authority. There was to be complete flexibility of the workforce. No details were specified - we were to sign up only to the employers' right to make these changes. This would allow the watch system to be ended, although the employers denied that would necessarily be the case. Their position is that the best person, for example, to decide the most suitable duty system for the London fire brigade is the London fire brigade chief officer rather than the national employers. There was to be no provision for negotiations. Under the current disputes procedure, with its status quo provision and so on, there is some protection, but now they were proposing that both sides would have to agree before the disputes procedure could operate - effectively a veto. So it is not about negotiation: it is about the employers' right to implement. These were big sticking points for the membership - and originally for the EC, which had said they was completely unacceptable. Every brigade in the country went to the conference with a clear mandate to reject that offer. The day before, London held a regional meeting to confirm our rejection, but, an hour or so later, we received an EC report that there had been another, third, 'final offer', which the executive was now recommending be accepted. The changes concern things like duty systems, where it is stated that there should be the aim of seeking consensus. New duty systems should take account of individual needs and be family-friendly. There should be "consultation" (not negotiation) between the employer and the trade union, and the national joint council joint secretaries and the 'independent' chair would be available to provide advice on implementation. The language had been made less threatening, but there was no fundamental change. Still the right to impose duty systems at local level unilaterally. Still the bilateral disputes procedure that would give the employers a veto, and so on. Our regional committee, like most conference delegates, were taken aback that the EC were now recommending this. It turned out that the executive in its meeting on the eve of conference had decided to do so by 12 votes to six. Andy Gilchrist himself had introduced the motion for acceptance. The EC also decided to cancel the strike due for March 20. They did not wait for the conference to discuss this, but took the decision to call it off themselves. The conference, had it been given the chance, may well have voted for the strike to go ahead, although it was not that clear-cut - there is a layer of people who oppose the deal, but who are in favour of suspending action during the war. There was a lot of discussion that evening and the following morning. It was rather unfortunate, however, that the first time most delegates got a copy of the new document was when they sat in their seats at the conference. We were told that there had been problems getting sufficient photocopies done before then, even though the conference hotel had its own business centre. London had by this time drafted an emergency motion which simply said that the recommendation to members should be the opposite - for rejection. Other brigades had also drafted motions. But when conference opened we were immediately told that the standing orders committee would not be in session and that therefore no further motions could be taken. There was a challenge to the chair in view of the fact that the situation had clearly changed: there was a new offer which had just been presented and we obviously had the right to consider it and to submit emergency motions in the light of that new offer. The challenge to standing orders was won with just four votes against out of about 250. This was a sign of the mood of conference. We then adjourned for the whole of the morning - nobody could understand why. When we resumed, there were several emergency motions putting various positions. Firstly West Midlands, supported by Strathclyde, proposed that immediately following the EC statement the conference should close and reconvene after members had been consulted. The effect of this would have been to prevent all the other motions being taken (the president ruled that the West Midlands proposal should be taken first). A number of delegates said that this was undemocratic and an attempt to stifle debate, but fortunately this motion was overwhelmingly rejected. There were then four key opposition motions. Greater Manchester called for rejection of the offer and for the strike to go ahead the following day. This was soon withdrawn. Derbyshire's motion simply stated that conference rejects the deal, while Essex called for strike action at the earliest possible opportunity. London called for conference to recommend that the members should reject the deal. The thinking of our region was that the strike that had been called off would be illegal if it was reinstated - we could possibly have succeeded, but it would have been hard at a day's notice to reverse the EC decision. Our motion did not directly call for more strikes, but that was certainly implicit in it. We were prepared to support the other three motions, but we thought that tactically we would be in the strongest position if the recalled conference were to take the decision for renewed action. The press will be saying, 'This is a new deal - let your members discuss it.' The recommendation for the members to reject the offer at a future conference was aimed at winning over brigades who were perhaps coming from a different perspective. Andy Gilchrist's argument was that the new document contained significant improvements. We had come a long way and he did not think that in the current political climate we could make any further progress. He stated that a number of members were reluctant to strike during the war and there was a concern that public support would be lost. He said there had been very few calls for escalation and that seemed to demonstrate to him that the members were not enthusiastic for continuing the fight. But this is a lot of nonsense. He had not even stuck to his own strategy of discontinuous strikes - there have only been 15 days of industrial action since November. True, the members have not been calling for all-out action: they have been saying, 'Stop cancelling the strikes.' The EC struggled to find a seconder for the recommendation in favour of acceptance. There was one region that was prepared to do so in the end, but the proposal won almost no support. Although the motions from Derbyshire and Essex were defeated, the London motion was carried. I have no doubt that the members are prepared to take further strike action. Certainly in London some people have been talking about being prepared to continue the dispute for the next year. I attended a branch meeting last night that unanimously rejected the latest offer. There were about 40 people attending, which would be about two-thirds of the branch. Another branch unanimously rejected it today. I think this is typical. It is not easy to continue the fight when your own leadership does not want to, but in London at least there will be an overwhelming rejection - again. Andy Gilchrist has disappointed a lot of members. Many people have seen through him. At all the FBU branch meetings I have been to since the conference, a recurring theme has been how we get rid of the leadership. I have never before been in a branch meeting where 40 people have been discussing how to get rid of the general secretary and the whole executive council - quite an unusual situation to be in. Members were debating whether it was tactically best to wait until the dispute was over before trying to change the leadership. But others were asking, if we do not move now, how can we get a grip on the dispute? To let the same people carry on does not seem sustainable. It is a question of arriving at a consensus amongst activists as to the best way of getting control. There are a number of other problems, the biggest being the war. Firstly the leadership has never addressed this issue properly. Andy Gilchrist has never gone out and campaigned, to explain to people why we should carry on with the strike action regardless and that has obviously undermined confidence. Secondly, if there had been a programme of strike action already in place when the war started, we would have been in a very strong position to carry on. Even in the branch which voted unanimously for rejection, the mood had shifted very much against taking strike action during the war. As the conference is not until April 15, so the simple logistics are that it would be at least seven days after that before a strike could take place, so we are talking about another four weeks. That is not how we would like it, but there is a get-out in that the political situation could have changed dramatically and the war could be over. My own brigade committee had a very long and honest debate and voted by 12 votes to seven that we should carry on in the case of a war. That reflects the differences. It is clearly not ideal when there are seven delegates who felt they had to vote against. This feeling will have increased, firstly because strike action has not been taking place, and secondly because the war has now started. The mood will have shifted against striking during the war, but I do not know to what extent. We have encouraged members to participate in anti-war action. Whereas previously we had lost the vote to affiliate to Labour Against the War, our regional committee did recently agree to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition. We publicised widely the February 15 demonstration and there was a big FBU contingent. The idea that the union should lead a political strike against the war cannot be sustained. There is a danger that leftwing activists could appear to want to use the dispute for that purpose. We have thought about making a video of ex-service firefighters arguing the case for striking during the war. The point is, if the labour movement were to call political strikes against the war, that would be one thing. But our members have not taken that decision. That is different from saying that we should accept a truce in the 'national interest' while the war is on. There are no good reasons for us to call off our dispute because of a war over which we have no control.