On the struggle of the firefighters


Having cancelled several planned 48-hour strikes in an effort to reach agreement with employers, the first industrial action by firefighters in a generation started at 1800 on Wednesday 13 November with a 48-hour walkout over pay and conditions.

In the biggest mobilisation of troops since the Gulf War, 19,000 armed forces, a mixture of army, navy and air force, were brought into Territorial Army bases and police stations across the country, thus threatening to scupper completely the government’s plans for an imminent war in Iraq. The troops were operating an 827-strong fleet of the antiquated engines nicknamed Green Goddesses, a tiny number compared with the 4,500 modern fire engines usually in operation. The 50-year-old vehicles contain no cutting equipment or long ladders and the troops had none of the breathing or fire-proof equipment that enables professional firefighters to go into burning buildings, rescue people from high-rise blocks or cut them from the wreckage in road traffic accidents. With such a small number of engines, and largely untrained crews, senior officers made it clear from the start that they would be providing rudimentary emergency cover only and prioritising life-threatening calls over property-damaging ones.

The media was quick to report every death by fire that happened over the period, although needless to say, such deaths hardly ever get a mention in normal times, and there are even less column inches devoted to the lives saved every night by firefighters. In fact, there were very few deaths during the strike, mainly because firefighters left their picket lines to help with rescue efforts.

While doing their best to stir up anti-strike sentiments with these humanitarian concerns, news programmes were also filled with gleeful reporting of soldiers sitting around looking bored – proof positive, naturally, of the bourgeoisie’s claim that firefighters, far from deserving the £30,000 they are claiming, are in fact getting money for nothing already.

In the run-up to the next action, an eight-day strike scheduled to begin on Friday 22 November, emergency talks took place, but a last-minute agreement reached between employers and the FBU for a 16 percent pay increase was vetoed in the most arrogant manner possible by the government. In the early hours of Friday morning a message came from John Prescott’s office that he would be unavailable to consider any proposals before 0930, knowing full well that the strike was due to start at 0900. After such a slap in the face, the FBU and its members were left with little option but to continue with the strike as planned.

As Paul Routledge put it in the Daily Mail of 13 November: “Their moderation was in vain. Instead of grasping the olive branch, the employers shoved it down their throat.”

Having thus proved to themselves that they had no option but to continue with industrial action, the firefighters commenced the strike with mixed emotions. The level of support shown them by members of the public, however, soon boosted their morale and steeled their resolve, helping to reconcile them to the prospect of a long drawn-out struggle. Despite a massive and slanderous campaign throughout the media (with the exception of the Daily Mail, which carried a front page headline in support of the strike, and the Mirror), ordinary people gave unstinting support to the strikers, tooting their horns at picket lines, signing petitions, donating money to the union’s hardship fund and bringing food to the pickets.

The media debate

The questions raised in the less rabid sections of the media, couched in terms of concern for the economy and the welfare of society as a whole, centred around five main points:

1. A 40 percent pay claim is unreasonable/absurd/greedy.

This is easily dispensed with. Percentages taken in abstraction are meaningless. The question is 40 percent of what? In the case of the firefighters, 40 percent of not very much is still not very much. There has been no similar campaign to smear MPs who recently voted themselves a 40 percent pay rise, and they were hardly underpaid before! Tony Blair has had several pay rises since he took office and his annual salary now stands at £168,000 plus expenses, plus pension. Not to mention the guaranteed shares and consultancies with various banks and multinational corporations once he leaves office. While firefighters work hard to serve the public, Labour and Tory MPs and PMs alike are on the corporate gravy train, as are most of the journalists so busy slinging mud at the strikers. Who are these leeches to call anyone greedy?

The fact is that firefighters, in the South East particularly, are no longer able to provide for their families, even when their partners are also earning, as their salaries have fallen further and further behind the spiralling cost of accommodation. Many are commuting large distances and so are unable to get home between shifts, which makes for a complicated and disrupted family life. The FBU has arrived at the figure of £30,000 as a decent living wage for its members. The fact that it’s 40 percent more than they are currently paid only highlights how badly paid they are at the moment!

2. Giving large pay rises to workers will lead to inflation, causing the living standards of the rest of us to go down.

This is the argument that has been used by capitalists since the battle between wage labour and capital began. It was so widely accepted at one time that even socialists started to agree that higher wages were no solution to their problems! Marx refuted this absolutely, proving that although more money paid to workers may for a very short time lead to raising of some prices, the force of competition in the marketplace soon pushes them down again, so that in fact the extra money for workers comes out of the profits of the capitalists – there is a fall in the rate of profit across the economy as a whole.

This is an absolute law of capitalism – low wages mean high profits and high wages mean lower profits. No wonder the ruling class and their hired prize-fighters in the realm of economy, the financial journalists, are so keen to make us believe in the inevitability and even desirability of low wages!

3. There is no money available to settle the firefighters’ claim.

At a time when the government has announced that it will be setting aside £1bn to go to war with Iraq, this claim looks flimsy even to the most credulous observer. Why is it that there seems to be a never-ending supply of funds available for paying out to shareholders of failing privatised industries, subsidising nuclear energy and waging imperialist wars across the globe, but when it comes to providing the public services that make up our social wage (and for which we are allegedly paying taxes) the river runs suddenly dry?

While respectable commentators nod their heads and sagely agree that the money must come from somewhere, it is the duty of socialists to point out that there is plenty of money, only the priorities of the government, in its role as executive of the capitalist class, are not to go frittering it away on universal health and education provision, decent public services and other such dispensable luxuries when the imperialists have need of it for propping up their ailing economy at home and protecting their piratical activities abroad.

The fact is that capitalism will never change its priorities because it is unable to do so. In order to remain competitive, individual capitalists and blocks of monopolists alike must constantly maximise profits at the cost of workers, forcing them down ever-lower in their conditions of existence as they transfer and concentrate the wealth produced by the working masses into fewer and fewer hands.

It is clear from the experience of the strike so far that the government is prepared to plough plenty of resources into defeating the strike and breaking the FBU. In fact, if Blair and his cronies spend several times what it would have cost to settle the firefighters’ claim in breaking the strike, as Thatcher’s government did with the miners in 1984/5, they will undoubtedly consider that money well spent, for capitalists live in fear and dread of an organised and conscious workforce and know perfectly well that a victory for one section of the working class is an inspiration to the rest.

This is made perfectly clear from the fact that even within their own criteria of a self-financing package, the firefighters’ pay claim could be settled:

“According to our calculations, the estimated savings that could be achieved if we meet the existing government targets for the fire service are up to £643m per year in respect of fires and up to £2.388bn per year in respect of road traffic accidents. But these targets can only be met on the basis of improving the service, not making cutbacks. Compare these figures with the £400-450m per year that it will cost to fund an increase in firefighters’ salaries to £30,000pa and you have the answer.” (Tim Hoy of Acton fire station)

4. The fire service must be modernised.

In its continual drive to pull the wool over the eyes of the uninitiated, the ruling class and its apologists are constantly reinventing our language, thinking to fool us into believing that the things have changed because the names are different. Just as anyone striving for freedom from imperialism is dubbed a ‘terrorist’, so the drive to decimate the social wage is couched in terms of ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’. To paraphrase a great British poet, however, a cut by any other name would sting as much – and cuts to the fire service will not just sting those employed in it. Fighting fire is work that requires training and experience – casual labour puts lives at risk, and the cuts in crewing and engine levels that the government is pushing for are bound to lead to a surge in injuries and deaths of both firefighters and the public.

The government also wants to cut the level of fire cover on nights, justifying their proposal by pointing to the fact that there are less call-outs at night, but this doesn’t take into account the fact that fires that start when people are sleeping generally have more time to take hold before being discovered and so tend to be more serious.

“There is nearly three times the risk of injury and a significantly greater chance of death in night time fires. This is also when the fire service makes the majority of its rescues” (FBU briefing, www.fbu.org.uk, 17 December 2002). Increased loss of life is certain if cover is cut at night.

In fact, on their own initiative, firefighters have been modernising the service dramatically in the last decade. The FBU has led a series of real reforms aimed at delivering a better service, as well as at maximising fire prevention and protection – the best ways to minimise loss of life from fire. It has also led initiatives to recruit women (such as providing decent maternity leave, etc) and ethnic minorities into a job that has traditionally been seen as the preserve of white males. “We were already modernising and now we are asking for a decent salary!” (Tim Hoy)

Other proposals are for a massive reduction in full-time fully trained staff and their replacement with part-time retained firefighters; a removal of the ban on overtime (although firefighters already work a 48-hour week in a job that requires full mental and physical alertness) and for firefighters to be trained as paramedics. This last is particularly insidious as it is justified in terms of saving lives, but is in fact a prelude to the government making further cuts to the ambulance service whilst requiring firefighters not only to deal with whatever emergencies they are called to (putting out fires, cleaning up chemical spillages, cutting people out of car wrecks, etc), but simultaneously to try and save the lives of whatever casualties there may be. And all this with smaller crews on fewer engines! It is perfectly clear that such ‘multi-tasking’ is going to lead not to greater but to less efficiency as far as serving the public is concerned. This, however, is of no concern to the government, whose only agenda is a cheaper service and a demoralised, disorganised workforce.

5. It is wrong for those providing emergency services to strike.

This is a favourite argument used in the press to convince well-meaning doubters to take the side of the government against their fellow workers:

“Whatever the rights and wrongs of their pay claim, this newspaper believes it is morally wrong for them to strike. The public which relies on them is being let down. That they can go on strike when this nation is more at risk than ever of a terrorist attack compounds the betrayal” (Sunday Express, 17 November 2002).

Leaving aside the scare-mongering aimed at garnering support for the government’s war on Iraq, this accusation is based on the false premise that we live in a unified society with a single moral code. This is clearly not the case. Capitalist society, like the feudal and slave-owning societies before it, is split into hostile classes whose interests are opposing and therefore irreconcilable. What is good for capital is bad for labour and vice versa. The question of morality is not an absolute one, but, like most things, depends on whose side you are on – on your class perspective.

As far as capitalists are concerned there is nothing so damaging to their aims, so horribly ‘anti-social’ as workers organising to defend their interests at the expense of the capitalists. But look at it from the point of view of the workers – organising under capitalism is the least they are called upon to do. All such organising really does is help workers to try and maintain their present conditions, to fight off the worst of capital’s relentless assault. The day that workers, whatever their profession, give up their right to withdraw their labour power – the only bargaining tool open to them in a society where the vast majority have been completely dispossessed – is the day that they admit defeat and allow themselves and their class to sink lower and lower as helpless victims of the system. It is clear that workers have a moral obligation, not merely to fight for their class within the arena of capitalist relations, but to fight for the removal of those relations altogether, for the emancipation of the working class – to fight for socialism.

The blame for any lives lost as a result of the firefighters’ action can be laid squarely at the feet of the government, whose proposed ‘reforms’ of the fire service, if allowed to go ahead, would in fact lead to many more lives being lost due to lack of proper cover and trained personnel.

Whose agenda?

In fact, all the questions raised and answered above are no more than a series of diversions, meant to distract the eyes of the people from the real issues. In their predatory war for control of that raw material of raw materials, oil, the government hides its rapacious war-mongering behind hypocritical cant about ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘abuses of human rights’ and ‘violation of UN resolutions’. The media obligingly takes up the chant and column inches and airtime are filled with ‘debate’ and ‘testimony’ from ‘experts’ on these subjects so that those opposing the war find themselves pushed into a defensive corner attempting to refute as many accusations as there are willing lackeys to dream them up.

The bourgeoisie attempts to deflect us from looking at the system itself by posing all sorts of questions that keep the debate firmly within the bounds of the current status quo, forcing its opponents to try and find solutions that are similarly bound. But when those opponents fall into that trap, they implicitly accept the bourgeoisie’s right to be asking such questions in the first place and give credence to the assumption that the solution must be found from within the bounds of capitalism – that capitalism is inevitable and eternal.

In much the same way, allowing ourselves to be diverted into 101 arguments about how to finance the FBU’s pay claims and whether firefighters are worth more than other workers is a distraction from the real issue – namely that capitalism, even in a rich country like Britain, is unable and unwilling to provide proper public services and decent pay and conditions for workers, be they in public or private sector employment. The truth of the matter is that there is no permanent solution under capitalism – whatever gains the workers make one day will be clawed back as soon as the capitalists have had time to recover their strength and lull the working class into a false sense of security.

The ruling class is determined to break the strike

It is clear that capitalist governments will never be happy about allowing industrial action to win gains for workers, given the example this sets to others. At the present time, when the ruling class agenda calls for further privatisation of public services and swingeing cuts across the board, growing trade union militancy is a major threat and it is clear that the government hopes to make an example of the FBU in much the same way as Thatcher’s government did with the NUM.

As the rabid columnist Philip Stephens put it: “To give in to Mr Gilchrist is to hoist a white flag before Bob Crow and Mick Rix, his equally militant chums in the rail unions.” (Financial Times, 18 November 2002)

Bourgeois commentators are perfectly clear about the agenda. This editorial piece urges Blair to stop ‘dithering’ and making ‘compromises': “Just as Margaret Thatcher’s stand against the miners destroyed militancy for a generation, a firm stand against the firefighters is essential to fend off an explosion in public sector pay.”

Martin Wolf, safe in the knowledge that the working masses will not be reading his column, puts the matter in almost Marxian terms, albeit from the point of view of defending capitalism: “A government’s monopoly over coercive power is the basis of civilised life. If organised interests possess both the capacity and the will to bring normal activities to a halt or, worse, endanger the public, that monopoly is gone. In place of an organised society, there is anarchy.”

“Siren voices will ask why the government should take such a tough line. Just a little more money, they will say, and all will be over. The government must not listen to these seducers. Once it has a reputation for appeasement, it is lost. If it were to fund a more expensive deal for firefighters, it would soon have the rest of the public services on its doorstep. Each surrender would make resisting the next one more costly. The turmoil would grow, not diminish. Quite soon, the government would have lost control over its domestic agenda.” (Financial Times, 25 November 2002)

You could not ask for a clearer statement of the irreconcilability of classes under capitalism, or of the lack of ‘neutrality’ of the state, that coercive machinery wielded by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.

Lessons of the strike so far

In the few short days of strike action that took place in November, firefighters and left-wing activists alike were given a crash course in the nature of the state, the role of the government and the media and the connection between imperialist war abroad on the one hand and oppression of workers at home on the other.

Even before the strike action started, firefighters were steeled in their resolve by the slanderous attacks against them in the media, which at first seemed unprovoked and upsetting but soon revealed to them the class interests behind the headlines. On picket lines up and down the country, FBU members were asking each other: ‘If they say this about us, how many more things are they lying about?’ One striker told Lalkar that his relative had been a policeman during the miners’ strike and he and his family had always believed the Thatcher government’s lies, repeated throughout the press, about the nature of the dispute and the terrible threat posed to civilised society by the striking miners. The vilification of FBU members in the press, however, had caused the scales to fall from his eyes: “I’ve just understood what they were fighting for and how they must have felt,” he told us.

The question of the war was everywhere being discussed, as were the simmering disputes in so many other public sector industries. When the teachers called a one-day strike, FBU members went to stand on NUT picket-lines and vice versa. Train and tube drivers refused to work when they realised the health and safety of drivers and passengers was compromised by the strike – solidarity action in all but name.

Most horrifying of all for bourgeois observers must have been the support organisations that were springing up around individual fire stations, consisting of representatives from local trade unions and tenants’ associations as well as residents and activists, etc. Up and down the country, collections in pubs and work places, outside train stations and on street corners were met with enthusiasm, particularly from the lower-paid sections of the community. It was interesting to see how those that turned up their noses at the collection buckets had, in the main, quite clearly passed the £30,000 threshold themselves!

Communities were becoming invigorated by political debate and organisation, workplaces linking together in common struggle and solidarity – these are things that the ruling class will go to any lengths to destroy. It is precisely through conscious organisation that the working class will find its voice and ultimately overthrow this rotten, parasitic system and even the seeds of that are terrifying to the bourgeoisie, whose primary aim at all times is to keep workers weak by dividing them from one another.

Strikes called off

In light of the above, it was hardly surprising that the government was doing everything it could to stall the strikes and play for time. What was surprising was that the FBU leadership, no doubt under heavy pressure from the Blairite TUC, should allow the momentum to be lost by acceding to demands for a halt to strike action so that new negotiations could take place.

These negotiations, far from the serious proposals one might have expected would be needed to stop action that FBU members had voted for by a majority of 87 percent, turned out to be nothing but an agreement to go to ACAS, the conciliation service. Since ACAS have no power to offer anything that has not been offered before (a derisory four percent in the first year and seven percent in the second if ‘modernisation’ targets are met) or compromise on any part of the government’s agenda, these negotiations were dismissed by much of the membership as ‘talks about talks’.

What the delay does is buy Blair valuable time. Time to mobilise troops for Iraq without the disruption of having to use vital forces for civilian work; time to organise the state for a better-prepared assault on the union should more strikes go ahead; time to use all his power over the trade union leadership to bully and coax Gilchrist into submission. Most importantly of all, the government will surely be hoping that a long delay will break the momentum in the movement that has been building up around the strikers, leading to a gradual trickling away of support and a corresponding demoralisation among FBU members and ebbing away of their resolve.

The reason given by Andy Gilchrist for calling off the strikes was that the FBU wanted to offer “further proof of the non-political nature of this dispute”. This was a response to the press labelling him a ‘Scargillite’ (ie. militant trade unionist) and the furore that erupted when he mentioned, quite correctly, that if the government had money to go to war, it had money to pay the firefighters a decent salary.

Instead of being defensive, though, Mr Gilchrist would do much better to state clearly, for the benefit of the wider working class movement as well as his members, that to be labelled a Scargillite is to be given a badge of honour that should be worn with pride. Arthur Scargill’s incorruptible stand as leader of the great miners’ strike of 1984/5, as well as his historic break with the Labour Party in 1996 when he founded the SLP, have earned him the respect of working people everywhere and the hatred of the ruling class, who could find no way to silence him or buy him off.

As for the allegations of being ‘political’ – again, there is nothing to be defensive about, for what strike is not political? A strike is open recognition of the war between the classes that is constantly simmering under the veneer of bourgeois ‘civil society’. Far from being intimidated by threats of state violence, the working class must learn to understand that the state is violence and they will never have anything unless and until they organise and stand together to defy and destroy the machinery that is used against them by the government (Labour or Tory) on behalf of the ruling class.

The role of the TUC and ‘left’ Labour

Although forced by pressure from the rank and file into expressions of support for the striking firefighters, the role of the TUC and Labour left has been to strive at all times to keep the indignation of their members within the limits acceptable to capital.

Far from taking the opportunity to educate workers and tell them clearly that they must break from the imperialist Labour Party once and for all if they want to really have a chance of winning the battle of workers against capitalists, the trade union leadership has confined itself to expressions of regret and surprise that a Labour government could treat workers so badly. Even the most militant of these leaders have not gone so far as to really split from Labour, but have confined themselves instead to a call for a return to ‘Old’ Labour.

Thus the leadership continues to play the dirty role of reconciling workers to their class enemies, although they themselves cannot but be fully aware of the strike-breaking, war-mongering, racist and imperialist history of the party they are so keen to tie their members to. If ‘Old’ Labour used slightly more radical-sounding language to hide its imperialist nature in previous decades, that was merely a reflection of the strength of the socialist movement, not just in Britain but on a global scale after the triumph of the Soviet Union in building socialism and in defeating the ‘unstoppable’ Nazi war machine. It was never in practice committed to the aims of the working class, however, and was characterised by Lenin right from its inception as a bourgeois Labour party – the agent of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement.

Far from being surprised that it is Labour that is attacking the workers in this way, the so-called ‘left’ leaders would do well to look at their history books. The Labour Party has always fulfilled the function of attacker of the last resort for the ruling class. A Labour government, controlling the trade union movement as it does, can get away with making cuts that would never be tolerated from a Conservative administration, and this is precisely why Blair was brought to power in 1997. He has accelerated the attacks on health, education and public services, made swingeing cuts in benefit entitlements at a time when unemployment is rising (notwithstanding massaged official figures), privatised council houses, waged war in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the Congo, sent arms to Israel and introduced the most repressive ‘anti-terror’ legislation permanently onto the statute books. Under this Labour government, far from seeing a more equal distribution of wealth, the discrepancy between the poor and the rich has become bigger than ever and the transfer of wealth continues apace.

As long as the labour movement is bound hand and foot to such a party, the ruling class can have nothing to fear, for social democracy represents the interests of the privileged sections of workers whose conditions of life rely entirely upon the continuation of imperialist plunder and oppression across the globe. This makes it a willing helper in the striving, not to overthrow the bourgeoisie, but to prop up its senile rule. The blood of the starving and war-torn masses of the world is on the hands of these so-called socialists whose great contribution to the progress of humanity is to help in a thousand and one ways to demoralise and disunite the workers of Britain.

It is to be hoped that the workers in the wider trade union movement will be revolted by the spectacle of their leaders turning somersaults to justify continued loyalty to such a party and will replace them with a leadership that is prepared to take the side of workers against the ruling class, stating clearly and openly that gains fought for and won will only be temporary as long as capitalism survives – and that only socialism can offer a really improving standard of life for everyone.

The bourgeoisie has no qualms about its own agenda, which is to crush the strikers totally and destroy their union. An editorial comment in the Financial Times of 12 November instructed that if a settlement is not possible by negotiation and the strikes go ahead, “the government must have a plan up their sleeve other than having the army fight fires”. And this plan? “This should be an ultimatum: accept new terms and conditions or think about alternative careers … The possibility of dismissal helps to concentrate the mind wonderfully.” (Financial Times, 12 November 2002)

Just as well we might say that the united action of the workers helps to concentrate the mind of the ruling class wonderfully! It is the duty of socialists to give every support and encouragement to the brave firefighters in the FBU, whose battle is not just for themselves but for workers everywhere. A victory for the FBU will give enormous confidence and inspiration to other underpaid workers and so members of other unions should be looking for ways to carry out solidarity action, regardless of the anti-trade union legislation that was put in place precisely to curtail the power of the working people. If unjust laws are defied on a large enough scale they will simply become unworkable.

The state may seem to be all-powerful, but in the face of the organised masses it will collapse like the proverbial paper tiger. More and more workers have nothing at all to lose in standing up against such a rotten, parasitic system – they have everything to win.

Victory to the FBU!