Firefighters should reject deal and disown leaders
Whatever gloss firefighters' leaders may put on the deal they have recommended to the members, it amounts to an exchange of jobs and conditions in return for the promise of wage increases. Even general secretary Andy Gilchrist suggests the deal represents only a "potential breakthrough". This half-baked agreement is, however, what members are advised to accept and bring the pay campaign to close.
What started off as a tremendously enthusiastic battle for decent pay is ending - if Gilchrist and company have their way - with a whimper. A majority on the Fire Brigades Union executive - London and a handful of others voted against - wants to call the campaign off without any real reason or explanation.
Many firefighters believe that the FBU executive caved in under the threat of the government's intention to impose a deal over the heads of the union if negotiations failed and further strikes were called. No doubt the TUC and other union leaders added their weight because they too did not relish the confrontation with New Labour that an imposed settlement would have produced. They'd rather keep in with Blair and company than stand by the firefighters.
Instead of explaining to the membership that New Labour would not compromise on its jobs-cutting, cost-driven agenda for the fire service, and presenting a series of options for continuing the struggle, the FBU leaders simply capitulated. They too were scared of a showdown with New Labour.
So firefighters are asked to swallow a 4% pay rise with a promise of 12% more if they accept fundamental changes to working conditions and practices. The terms of the agreement, taken together with the government's recent circular to fire authorities setting out new methods of working and the legislation currently in parliament, amount to a cuts agenda. Once implemented, these measures will cost many thousands their jobs and undermine a public service.
Take, for example, the draft guidelines issued by the government which signal the end to national minimum standards for fire service responses to 999 calls. These will be replaced by local "Integrated Risk Management Plans" which will set these standards locally. When the FBU revealed these secret guidelines, it said the whole exercise was underpinned by moves to cut the number of firefighters and emergency control staff by between 10 and 20 per cent. Local council employers have made clear in writing, said an FBU statement, that they are looking for at least 5,000 job losses across the UK fire service.
FBU President Ruth Winters said: "Councils are embarking on a cuts plan that is unsurpassed in a public service in recent memory. They have dressed it up in the clothes of modernisation but it's decimation. Cuts of this size are the equivalent of axing at least 50,000 teachers and shutting 3,000 schools. In NHS terms it would mean getting rid of at least 40,000 nurses and axing 80 hospitals and NHS Trusts.
"These are real cuts not genuine reform and investment. Their cuts agenda is ill-thought out, untried, untested. They plan massive cuts in the fire service, not investing to improve it. They are preparing a recipe for disaster in the fire service. You cannot have cuts of this magnitude in an already overstretched service without the lives of firefighters and the public being put at risk."
Fine words. But the agreement of May 20 which the FBU is recommending, says: "The Integrated Risk Management Plan, including the determination of the number of personnel on duty at each location at different times of day, is a decision for the fire authority, having consulted with the appropriate parties. It does not require any formal collective agreement and, as at present for Section 19 applications, cannot be a matter for the disputes procedure."
Just in case anyone is any doubt about the New Labour thinking behind these guidelines, Prescott's ministry website says local authorities should consider adopting "a cost-benefit resource allocation strategy, where cover would be provided only where the predicted value of savings equalled, or surpassed, the cost of achieving them".
The FBU leaders undoubtedly hope that the membership will give up the fight because they see no way of defeating the government's plans for the service. With strike after strike called off, they are counting on a certain amount of weariness among the members.
There is certainly no way forward under the present FBU executive and officials, the majority of whom have abdicated leadership. Yet the fact remains: A vote in favour of the agreement is a vote for a colleague's job to go and for the public to hope that when they need help their local fire station is still open.
When the delegate conference is recalled early next month, the membership should seize control of the dispute and disown those who don't want to fight. That this is possible is shown by what happened in Brighton in the spring when the recalled delegate conference overturned a deal secretly worked out between Gilchrist and Prescott.
Members have to do the same again and repudiate a deal that is not worth the paper it is written on and set out a strategy to maintain the fight. This must involve seeking active support from other trade unionists. Increasing numbers of working people reject New Labour and will rally to a fight against a government setting out to wreck the fire service.
FBU leaders say that it is time to put the pay campaign behind the union and prepare for the jobs fight ahead. But by ending the pay fight in a way that is designed to undermine morale, the leadership weakens the union, making it easier for the employers to pick off branches one by one.
The central issue is that New Labour is a business-driven government that is privatising public services where it can and imposing commercial agendas on the rest. There is no compromise between this and those such as firefighters who want a service driven by public needs like safety.
The majority of the FBU executive have failed and capitulated. It is time for those who have no brief for the Blair government to step into their shoes. The regional leaders who oppose this deal have both an opportunity and obligation to step into the breach.
for a Socialist Future