Rank and file reject 'modernisation' deal

New Labour's attempt to bully the Fire Brigades Union membership into caving in and accepting a package of cuts, job losses and attacks on their working conditions for the moment appears to have failed. Last week the Fire Services Bill, which would allow deputy prime minister John Prescott to "fix or modify the conditions of service of fire brigade members" and "give directions to fire authorities as to the use or disposal of property or facilities" was given a second reading by 284 votes to 59 in the House of Commons, despite the rebellion of 27 Labour backbenchers. It could become law by July. The bill was introduced in the hope that the mere threat of implementing its clauses would see the FBU membership begging to sign up to whatever the fire service employers demand, for fear of having something worse legally imposed. General secretary Andy Gilchrist successfully persuaded the April recall conference, which voted to prepare for further industrial action, to give the leadership the go-ahead to negotiate a deal based on proposals from professor Frank Burchill, 'independent' chair of the National Joint Council, the union-employer body. But union sources say that when the FBU executive council announces the result of the membership consultation on May 15 there will be a clear majority in favour of rejection of Burchill, irrespective of Prescott's threats. FBU London regional organiser Matt Wrack told me that the decision by the majority to stand firm was "quite remarkable" - especially after the two-to-one vote by delegates at the recall conference to support the executive. But, according to comrade Wrack, because of disparities in regional representation, the leadership may still be able to "cobble together a majority on the executive" to vote for Burchill. Nevertheless, while this would allow the EC to attempt to strike up a deal with the employers, there would still be the little matter of winning FBU conference to back it: "This puts them in a bit of a dilemma. The Burchill tactic has effectively failed," said comrade Wrack. There is no doubt that much of the outrage expressed by the leadership over the bill was aimed at panicking the membership into going along with Burchill. The FBU claims that the government is breaking international law, as the bill "violates both article six of the European Social Charter and article eight of the International Labour Organisation's convention 151". Comrade Wrack told me: "It is disgraceful that a Labour government is pushing it through and that there were only 27 Labour MPs who could bring themselves to vote against. However, I don't see it as being quite so cataclysmic as the FBU leadership. It doesn't take away the right to strike and in that sense is a little bit meaningless. It won't stop strikes and it may not stop this dispute." After all, FBU members have already had a settlement imposed upon them - in the capital at least. Employers decided to force through new London weighting rates after failing to reach agreement with the union. But the London region voted to defer any fight over this until after the national dispute. "Effectively we have neither accepted nor rejected the imposed settlement. Our view, supported by our solicitors, is that this doesn't prevent us taking any action in the future." Prescott, in introducing the bill last week, stressed yet again how 'generous' the employer's offer was and warned that if he was "forced" to use his new powers he might come to the conclusion that it could not be afforded and reluctantly decide to impose a lower figure. The government, employers and media have been falling over themselves in their rush to condemn firefighters for their 'greed' in not accepting what they say is worth 16%. In fact only four percent is guaranteed. Firstly any additional increase would be paid over three years and would be entirely dependent on savings being made and verified by the Audit Commission. At the end of the day that means fewer firefighters. But even then such a rise would not necessarily be paid to everybody - for example, there is a threat to abolish long-service pay and differentials. The other string to Prescott's bow was yet another appeal to the patriotism of union members. He called on them not to strike while the military was still involved in Iraq. So much for the FBU conference decision not to call any industrial action while the war was being fought. UK forces may not be engaged in full-scale hostilities, but Blair and co can, and do, claim that the occupying troops are still undertaking highly dangerous duties and cannot be spared as stand-in firefighters at home. Besides they might be called upon to invade some other 'rogue state' at any moment. RMT general secretary Bob Crow was quick to link up New Labour's Fire Services Bill with its support for the US-UK Gulf War: "Here is a government that says it wants to impose human rights in Iraq at the point of a gun, yet wants to deny workers in Britain the basic right to bargain with their employers." Using "the power of the state to impose a pay deal on a group of workers and to force through cuts that will cost lives brings disgrace on the name of Labour," he said. "If the FBU is to be attacked in this way, the TUC must mobilise the whole trade union movement in their defence." Obviously what is key is winning the hearts and minds of the rank and file. The trade union bureaucracy will not act unless it faces irresistible pressure from below. And that demands organisation of the militant minority. The campaign undertaken by a handful of FBU militants through setting up a website and exchanging emails has paid dividends. As comrade Wrack explained, "It's clear from this vote that there has been some kind of rank and file mobilisation. We've not only maintained the 15,000 votes we had at conference, but actually increased it substantially and seem to have got a majority of the membership across the country. That's only been done by rank and file members getting in touch with each other and circulating anti-Burchill material around different branches." This may seem like small beginnings, but it is only through such self-organisation that the FBU dispute can be effectively fought. Peter Manson