Militants rally against FBU ban

Alan Fox reports on the ban of the leftwing Grassroots FBU by the Fire Brigade Union's executive

The Fire Brigades Union executive council, meeting on Monday October 11, has effectively banned Grassroots FBU, the rank and file body fighting for a democratic and militant union. Meanwhile, one of those targeted in the EC witch-hunt, London regional secretary Matt Wrack, is to contest the vacant assistant general secretary (AGS) post.

The EC voted to accept the recommendations of a six-month ‘investigation’, headed by retiring AGS Mike Fordham. It claims that Grassroots FBU is “an unauthorised organisation operating within the FBU contrary to the policies of the union, and/or in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union”. Therefore “participation in the organisational activities of Grassroots FBU” is not permitted.

The EC is to send out a circular to all branches in which the case against Grassroots FBU is outlined. However, the executive seems to think it sufficient merely to state the obvious - that Grassroots is “an organisation” - without attempting to show in any serious way how its actions are “prejudicial to the interests of the union”. Thus, union members are told that Grassroots FBU has its own officers, bank account, website and logo, and even goes so far as to hold meetings “publicly advertised with a chair and speakers”. In the eyes of general secretary Andy Gilchrist and his ‘left group’ EC majority, such normal, healthy activity is beyond the pale.

Particularly vile is the implication in the EC circular that Grassroots somehow aims to split or replace the FBU by setting up a rival union - despite repeated and consistent declarations from the rank and file body opposing any such notion. But, alleges the EC, Grassroots FBU has the “potential to become an alternative union” and its “supporters have discussed breaking away from the FBU” (my emphasis). This is followed by an outright lie: “The extent of organisation within Grassroots FBU is such that it has been seriously considering whether to establish a new union.”

The only evidence it produces for this libel is anonymous gossip that has appeared on a website totally unconnected with Grassroots. The circular notes: “A poll on the UK Fire website encouraged an extensive debate, including suggestions that Grassroots become a new union and take its place on the newly formed National Joint Council alongside the FBU.”

All this does inadvertently confirm, however, the extent of rank and file discontent with the current bureaucratic left leadership. Hundreds of disconsolate members are taking part in unofficial discussions in which a range of options for a change of course are proposed. It is hardly surprising that amongst them should appear naive calls for the formation of a new union.

But Gilchrist is stymied in his moves against four leading members of the London region, including comrade Wrack. The Fordham ‘enquiry’ concluded that there was “sufficient evidence of significant involvement” in Grassroots FBU against them, but the EC bemoans the fact that it has been powerless to act:

“Up to now the union has been blocked from hearing disciplinary proceedings against four named London members (Matt Wrack, Paul Embery, Andy Dark, Gordon Fielden), because starting such proceedings does not have the backing of the London executive council member, Mick Shaw, as is required by rule.” Comrade Shaw is a Labour Party member and former supporter of Gilchrist’s ‘left group’ who now opposes the leadership.

Therefore the executive is proposing that the 2005 annual conference should agree an amendment to rule “to ensure that the EC is not prevented by the relevant EC member from adjudicating on questions of discipline” in future. In the meantime, it looks as though Gilchrist’s attempts to decapitate Grassroots FBU and disbar Matt Wrack from the forthcoming AGS election will flounder.

Comrade Wrack told me: “It seems that people are being condemned and witch-hunted for their views. I have never supported any breakaway from the Fire Brigades Union, but I have consistently fought for democracy and accountability within it. Many thousands of members want to see change in the FBU and I think the campaign against those who call for such change will largely fall on deaf ears.”

Nevertheless, the EC decision sets the scene for further attacks, and makes it more difficult for EC members like comrade Shaw to refuse to initiate disciplinary action. Now that the EC has the weight of an official, carefully considered ‘enquiry’ behind its ban, perhaps EC members in other regions might be prepared to start proceedings against other named militants for their alleged connection with Grassroots FBU.

However, an equally likely outcome is that the witch-hunt will backfire. The feeling against the EC, following their dire misleadership of the 2002-03 dispute, is intense. Mistrust of Gilchrist means that the instinctive reaction of the rank and file is to take what he says with a very large pinch of salt. The sending out of a full, detailed report to every branch, including the names of the three members who were prevailed upon to make the initial complaint to the EC, as well as those of the ‘accused’ four, will allow branches to form a judgement as to who is acting “in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union” and who is not.

The circular will not only serve to publicise Grassroots FBU, but also increase the profile of comrade Wrack on the eve of the AGS election, due in January 2005. And how will London members react to the accusations against Mick Shaw? The report looks set to increase his standing amongst the rank and file.

In a further blow to Gilchrist, the October 11 EC agreed to drop all charges against national officer Paul Wolstenholme - militant firefighters are calling this a “massive climbdown”. Comrade Wolstenholme was falsely accused of leaking details of EC voting patterns to the Grassroots website, but Gilchrist had to retreat after sustained pressure from below. This pressure had its effect on a layer of officials, who were forced to distance themselves from the bureaucratic attack. No doubt more of the same pressure against an increasingly desperate EC will continue to make itself felt over the coming weeks.