FBU votes for action

Two hundred and fifty Fire Brigades Union delegates unanimously voted to reject the employers' "final offer" on pay and conditions at their recall conference on April 15 in Brighton. Delegates accepted proposals to renew industrial action after "the end of hostilities" in Iraq. Tina Becker spoke to Mark Skelton, a rank and file militant from Finchley in London, and Ian Foulkes, chair of the Merseyside branch

Mark Skelton How do you assess the outcome of the FBU's conference? I am very pleased that conference voted so strongly against the "final offer", which fell quite a way outside of what our dispute was originally about - ie, a demand for a wage increase of 40%. This offer had to be represented to conference, because at our previous conference on March 19 delegates overturned the EC's recommendation to accept. As a result, we had to take the offer back to the membership, this time with the official recommendation to reject. And everybody did, including the leadership. Unfortunately, the proposals presented by Frank Burchill then muddied the waters. The FBU executive committee recommended conference accept the proposals put to the FBU and the employers. There was talk of the leadership even cancelling the recall conference on the basis of these new proposals. In your opinion, do these proposals present any great improvement compared to the employers' offer? They contain some minor improvements, but that is not saying much. Burchill is being presented by the media and employers as totally independent. However, he still really operates on the level of management and is not on our side - that is quite clear from the proposals. I was dismayed to see the EC present those proposals as a forward-looking strategy. The employers would find it easy to negotiate down, but it would be almost impossible for the FBU to negotiate up from an offer that it has accepted. Unfortunately, many branches followed the EC line and conference voted 2:1 in favour. I had some reservations whether delegates could vote on these proposals without a proper mandate. Members had seen them, but there was no time to properly discuss them. These proposals have to go back to the branches now, so that the rank and file can look at them. The fact that the regional delegates accepted does not mean giving up. I hope members will see through what these Burchill proposals are all about: that the leadership has lost the heart. Would you have to wait until the 'end of hostilities'? Unfortunately, there was an overwhelming vote on this motion, which came from Greater Manchester branch. This is very unfortunate, because it actually gives legitimacy to this war. And only yesterday I heard some US officer declaring the war over. For us to be hindered by such a motion is totally wrong. Will individual acts of terrorism be included under this formulation? What if the US starts an attack on Syria? The leadership seems to be pandering to New Labour rather than looking after the interests of the membership. There were a number of emergency resolutions, which called for strike action even during war. However, the Greater Manchester motion was taken first and all the other motions fell automatically when it was accepted. But what about the membership? Have they accepted defeat? I don't think so. There are a number of emergency motions being prepared in some regions, which challenge Andy Gilchrist and the rest of the EC, but I am not sure how strong this will be. Also, there are some beginnings of rank and file organisation. An anonymous firefighter from Greater Manchester who calls himself 'Simon' has set up the website www.30kfirepay2.co.uk, where FBU members and the public are airing their views. The leadership does not like this at all - Andy Gilchrist launched a big attack on it at conference - and have argued against "washing our dirty linen in public". Actually, it is quite an interesting site that has helped to further cooperation and organisation amongst firefighters. Ian Foulkes Is it one step forward, two steps back? I was very disappointed by the attitude of most delegates. They seem to think that we have gone through a hard fought battle. I believe we have not really started the fight. I do not believe that this is purely the fault of the leadership. I think they have reacted to the messages that they have been getting from members. If there had been a way forward supported by all members, I am sure the leadership would have gone with it. What about the war? People are just not willing to strike during a war. For example, I have attended eight branch meetings in the last couple of weeks, where we have had a very mixed response for strike action during a war. Merseyside is normally a quite militant area, so I would suggest that the atmosphere in other parts of the country would have been even more negative. The shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin accused the FBU of being "Saddam's friends" when a strike date was set for March 20. The strike was cancelled by the leadership. Does the FBU now have to be accused of being "Tony's friends"? I definitely think the acceptance of this motion lets the EC off the hook. It allows them to not call any more strikes for another month or so. It takes the pressure off them. There is no momentum in this dispute anymore. We are dead in the water in that respect. Unfortunately, I very much think members will vote for the Burchill proposal, because our conference has voted overwhelmingly to accept the offer. What do you think of the proposals? They almost exclusively deal with the dispute procedure. The employers' offer was based on bilateralism - ie, both sides would have to agree that there was a dispute, which would give the employers a veto. The new offer allows any party to bring a dispute forward, so it allows for unilateral action. That is the real difference. The whole problem with all of these proposals is that they are not fully on the table. All the way along you deal with so-called 'heads of agreement', which means you do not see the full terms. It is signing a blank cheque. I think the basis of both proposals is that we would be selling jobs to get a pay rise. During the strike it has become obvious that there is almost no effective rank and file organisation in the FBU. Has that changed? Unfortunately there are very few members involved at a rank and file level. An exception is London, where people have done some sterling work. The comrades have come under heavy attack at the recall conference, because their whole region is fighting militantly against the Burchill proposals. They have been the most vocal brigade in opposition to a deal. They also spoke against the motion that suspends any strike action during the war. And they have got a well functioning rank and file structure, which has paid off. They have got their membership well on board and well educated, whereas other parts of the country have failed to do that. I was especially astonished by the Scottish delegates present, because they were on the right wing of the conference all the way through. Do you think there is a potential for a leadership challenge after this conference? Not a chance. The EC are now much better organised than the members and in a far stronger position than they were before.