FBU rank and file start to organise

The Fire Brigades Union has reluctantly agreed at its June 12 conference to end its 18-month-long dispute and accept the deal recommended by the leadership. London regional officer Matt Wrack discusses the settlement and the situation facing the rank and file

The mood at the conference was mixed. Among those who voted for acceptance it was one of resignation; from those opposed, including the bulk of observers, there was a lot of anger with quite a bit of heckling.

Andy Gilchrist’s speech featured a kind of pseudo-Marxist radical terminology: we live in a system based on capital accumulation, where the state is very powerful and difficult to take on. Nobody was going to man the barricades and yet partial strike action was not going to shift the government (partial strike action, of course, had been the strategy he had originally proposed. As a speaker from one of the brigades that voted in favour of the deal said, “Next time you get a big idea, Andy, keep it to yourself!”).

The argument was: ‘We need to accept this settlement to keep the union intact for future fights.’ But how does he propose to fight next time? Perhaps our general secretary thinks that local victories might be easier to obtain. He has, after all, signed us up for local deals. According to Gilchrist, the recommendation was the best arrangement in the public sector. Although there were many details to be ironed out, the protection that people want would be built in during negotiations in the coming weeks. It was clear that, on the recommendation of the leadership, we were signing up to a deal that is not finalised.

What will happen if the FBU negotiating team fail to reach an agreement over the details? Well, having given away the one weapon we have - strike action - they have to reach agreement. One delegate suggested that in such circumstances there could be a further ballot later in the year. But the idea of ending an 18-month campaign, only to begin another one a few months later, is a non-starter.

It is claimed that the settlement involves a 16% pay rise, but only four percent, backdated to November 2002, is actually guaranteed. Interestingly somebody on the ‘30Kfirepay’ FBU rank and file website noted that under the old pay formula, which operated for 25 years, we would have received between 3.5% and 3.8%. Now we are getting four percent, but that involves a whole host of job losses, reintroduction of overtime and the abandonment of all current conditions - all for 0.2%!

In November 2003 a further rise of, on average, seven percent is held out - there will be a completely new pay structure, as yet unknown, based on a new ‘integrated personal development system’ (IPDS), so nobody as yet knows what rise they might get. The IPDS introduces individual development records and monitoring for everyone, which clearly opens the door to performance-related pay. I think the employers will insist that this forms a part of the final package.

In July 2004 there is the promise of another 4.2% across the board, but both this and the November 2003 instalment are dependent upon ‘savings’ being made - the audit commission will check that all the conditions have been met before the increases are paid out. The negotiations and consultations on all the other aspects must also be completed. If anything breaks down, management could renege on the whole pay deal.

Much of the rhetoric around the original £30,000 claim revolved around the demand for a new, long-term pay formula. A new formula, to begin in 2005, has indeed been established - but it will only run for two years. Again, the basis of this has not yet been agreed. The leadership has dressed it up by claiming it will be linked to the ‘administrative, technical and professional’ (ATP) category in the government’s new earnings survey, whereas previously we were linked to male manual workers. However, what the deal actually says is that both sides recognise that firefighters have been classified as ATP according to government statistics and that this will be “an important consideration” in deciding the new formula.

Meanwhile the employers are looking for job losses through a new system of fire cover. The government is scrapping national standards, leading to what is known as ‘integrated risk management times’ - each fire authority will be able to determine what cover is needed, whereas up to now it has had to be verified by the secretary of state in accordance with national standards. This allows for fire stations, appliances and so on to be axed.

The duties we currently work are also being examined. According to the propaganda at the time, the strikes demonstrated that staffing levels could be reduced between midnight and midday, so constant levels of crewing between day and night shifts will no longer be a negotiable issue. The question of staffing at different times will purely be a matter for the employer.

Then there is to be a review of our national conditions of service and the national negotiating machinery and disputes procedure, to be completed in 2003. The pay increases also depend on these being satisfactorily concluded.

In short it is a very poor deal - a tragic end to the dispute. We are signing away so much - including unknown elements - in exchange for very little. The employers are getting a blank cheque to rewrite all our conditions of service. In all the meetings I have addressed in London I have only heard one or two members suggesting that the deal was a good one. On the conference floor even those arguing for acceptance were not claiming that. The only person singing its praise was Andy Gilchrist.

We did not push it to a card vote - which perhaps was a mistake, but the leadership won by something between 2.5:1 and 3:1. Taking into account the brigades known to be against the deal, the ‘no’ vote probably would have received around 13,000, against 32,000 in favour. We knew we would be heavily defeated.

The leadership explained the mood of resignation by saying that the government had taken up an appalling hard-line position, and we were facing the imposition of a settlement and possible legal action - members were not prepared to carry on in those circumstances. My interpretation is rather different. The leadership’s stop-go strategy - or lack of strategy - eventually produced demoralisation. People began to believe that there would be no acceptable deal under the current leadership.

Perhaps part of the problem is the period we have been in. Because big struggles have been few and far between, people have not had to think about issues such as controlling elected leaders. For a long time those of us who started to raise criticisms of the leadership’s strategy were very much in a minority, even amongst the militant rank and file. The view was that the leadership had led a campaign and won a 90% strike vote, so they must have been doing something right.

Now, however, things have changed. Many members have identified a lack of openness and accountability in the union, a lack of control over officials. They have observed the secrecy surrounding the taking of decisions - the inability to determine how individual representatives have voted on the executive council, for instance.

There are now a whole host of discussions going on concerning the accountability of the leadership at all levels. The structure of the union itself has been highlighted. There is an imbalance. On the EC, for example, where there is one representative per region, large regions like Scotland, with 6,000 members, can be outvoted by smaller regions like Northern Ireland (1,500 members). There is no proportionality in terms of how members’ views are reflected.

Each EC member is elected by a ballot of their region’s members and are supposedly controlled by their regional committees. Apart from London and Northern Ireland, which are also brigades, the regions are there just to create a layer of policemen. Branches send delegates to the brigade committee, but elsewhere there are also delegates from the brigade to the region, whose committees are very much dominated by the regional officials.

There will now be a layer of officials who say, ‘Oh well, that was the conference decision. Let’s get back to normal.’ I don’t think the membership will be prepared to accept the normal any more. They are no longer prepared to see a leadership throwing expenses around while they have been suffering financial hardship on the picket line.

When the ‘£800 curry’ story first broke, many members were very defensive of Gilchrist. That has now changed completely - people were fuming over the latest exposures of big bills for hotels and meals. It is seen as a gravy train, which needs to be stopped.

Because of the widespread anger, frustration and demoralisation, a number of people have suggested leaving the union. There have been a few resignations already - branch officials quitting their post and members leaving the union. Some people in London are even talking about a breakaway, or leaving en masse to join another union, which would obviously be a mistake. Rank and file activists need a clear alternative to combat these various manifestations of frustration.

The FBU has always been very ‘left’ in terms of Morning Star-type international issues - the further away the cause, the more radical they are - and Gilchrist is within that tradition. He is certainly very politically correct. By agreeing to back such causes with members’ money - without ever trying to convince the membership or win the argument - they get leftwing credentials in certain sections of the left press. But they are a phoney left. When it comes to a fight, they fall at the first hurdle.

There is now a very strong feeling that the leadership ought to be challenged - there have been various attempts within individual brigades and branches. Gilchrist is not due for re-election until 2005, but I have called for him to resign now: he should go. It is a call that many are making.

The annual conference due in the spring was postponed and ought to be held later in the year, although this may not happen. Whenever it takes place, it is certain that, as well as a challenge to the leadership, there will be a move over the link with Labour. The seconder of the leadership recommendation at last week’s conference attempted to put a radical gloss on the motion by suggesting disaffiliation as the next step.

It is quite possible, given the current mood, that disaffiliation will be voted through. Democratisation remains my position, but the question would be in such circumstances whether we should attempt to stand against the mood. Even if disaffiliation were to take place, we would still need to push democratisation.

In the meantime we have launched a new rank and file organisation - Rank and File FBU. Many of its supporters have been attracted via the ‘30K’ website - the Weekly Worker carried a review of it, but did not really pick up on the type of discussion it carries (May 29). What started off as an information site is now mainly a vehicle for debate. It has become a big focus for opposition, which is why the leadership hate it - it was ‘named and shamed’ at the previous recall conference. Some brigades have written to their members telling them not to visit the site.

It has succeeded in putting people from virtually every brigade in the country in touch with each other, so that when rank and file meetings have been called, they have been attended by more than just the traditional left. As well as long-standing activists, many new people have come along.