30K ‘cos they’re worth it – on the firefighters’ dispute

This is the slogan of the Fire Brigades Union, demanding a 40% increase in the wages of its members, from £21,500 a year to £30,000.

Howls of protest have needless to say arisen from all the bourgeois media. Typical is Martin Wolf in the Financial Times of 28 October 2002:

“… [W]hen overall inflation is close to 2%, the FBU’s claims are grotesque. If they were granted, the pay of the most junior firefighter would match that of a police constable of substantial seniority. What justification could there be for this? This is not a far more dangerous job than all others. Research shows that firefighting comes 23rd in a list of the 30 most hazardous occupations.”

Martin Wolf’s occupation does not count as hazardous at all, yet it is safe to say he will be earning more than £30,000 already, so the relevance of his rantings is hard to see.

Is a 40% rise ‘excessive’?

But does he have a point that with inflation at 2% a pay claim of 40% is excessive. Is £30,000 a year not a very large salary for a job which does not require years of self-funded education?

The first thing to bear in mind is that firefighters work 48 hours a week. £30,000 a year for a 48-hour week is equivalent to £24,000 a year for a 40-hour week – hardly a princely wage for people who are the equivalent of skilled manual workers, quite apart from the fact that their job is one of the 30 most hazardous. In addition, 30 of those 48 hours are worked on overnight shifts, unsocial hours – night duty! Like other public sector workers, firefighters have been seeing a steady decline in the purchasing power of their wages over many years. In these circumstances, the fact that inflation is currently 2% a year has nothing to do with anything at all.

Are the firefighters pampered?

The bourgeois media, on behalf of the ruling class, is frantically beavering away trying to undermine the public’s support for the firefighters’ case, and, if they are to be believed, they have had some limited success, bringing down from some 75% to some 50% those who say in opinion polls that they support the firefighters’ claim. Hence, not only are we told that the pay rise being sought is excessive, but also that firefighters have an extremely cushy life (and thus, by implication, don’t deserve the support that the rest of the overworked and harassed proletariat seems willing to give them):

“The package the employers seek is already pretty modest. It does not involve redundancies. It does not touch the cost of the firefighters’ costly pension scheme. It does not take away the popular two-shift working system which allows them generous time off and, in many cases, the pleasures of a second job” (Leader, Financial Times, 29 October 2002).

One wonders how much pleasure one would get from a second job after working 48 hours at one’s first job. To the extent that firefighters resort to second jobs, it is obviously because they can’t live on the miserable pittance that they earn at present. Paul Vallely of The Independent spent 24 hours with Blackburn’s firefighters, and was clearly convinced that their lives were far from cushy. He reports, on 25 October 2002, the situation as far as “the pleasures of a second job” are concerned:

“About a quarter of them [the Blackburn firefighters] … ‘went spivving’, in the Blackburn vernacular. These second jobs ranged from casual decorating to domestic electrical work. One man even moonlights by working as a part-time ‘retained’ fireman. ‘We work two day shifts, two night shifts and then have four days off, but we’re only allowed to work the middle two’, says John Riley. ‘If we weren’t so badly paid we wouldn’t do it at all,’ says Steve Roberts whose wife, a nurse, takes home more pay than he does.”

Firefighters setting an example for other public sector workers

All suggestion that the firefighters’ pay claim is excessive is clearly just so much spin. The fact that so much effort is being put into this spin, rather than quietly reaching a deal with the union leaders, demonstrates the desperation in which the capitalist system finds itself – for it is not only the firefighters’ pay which has fallen behind, but that of all public sector workers. Even Martin Wolf has to concede that “overall public sector pay has fallen by about 6 per cent relative to pay in the private sector, since 1995” (op. cit.) and there are many “groups of workers [who] do have a strong case for an exceptional increase in pay” (among whom he does not include the firefighters). If the firefighters fight for a fair pay rise and win, then the bourgeoisie is worried that the quiescence of other workers, that has allowed the purchasing power of their pay packets to fall substantially, will come to an end. “Nurses are currently offered £15,000 basic pay, and want a 10-15% increase. Teachers earn between £17,595 and £32,217 and want a 10% rise, or an extra £2,000 a year, whichever is greater” (The Guardian, 29 October, 2002, ‘Firefighters set to strike’). There are many others.

Rising union militancy

The quiescence that has allowed pay levels to fall has been brought about partly by Thatcherite union bashing and anti-trade union laws (i.e., intimidation on the part of the bourgeoisie), and partly by securing for most unions a compliant (“responsible”) union leadership which, like the General Secretary of the TUC, John Monks, does not believe in strikes. Of late, however, ordinary members of unions have been exerting pressure for action, voting in officials with a militant reputation in preference to known Blairites, for instance in ASLEF, the RMT and the Post Office Workers’ union. The GMB and TGWU will be holding elections shortly, and the bourgeoisie is really worried that these unions might pass into ‘left-wing’ control. To prevent this, says Martin Wolf “the job of the government is to ensure that these antagonists not only fail, but are seen to fail. If the government is unsuccessful in this, it will, to quote the well-known words of a former Tory minister, be in office, but not in power.”

Blair – Thatcher’s heir

Our ‘socialist’ government, which so many people voted into office in the belief that they were in some way ‘better’ for the working class than the Tories – and there were people calling themselves communists urging them to do so! – is only too happy to take up the challenge on behalf of the bourgeoisie of trying to annihilate the firefighters. Tony Blair has characterised Andy Gilchrist, the General Secretary of the FBU, as a ‘Scargillite’ which, given Arthur Scargill’s resolute and courageous leadership of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, could be dismissed as really rather flattering The implications behind Blair’s use of this term, however, need to be spelt out. These are: (1) that the miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill amounted to no more than mindless sabotage which the Tory government of the time was quite right to suppress with violence; (2) that the demands of the firefighters are equally unreasonable; and (3) that they will be suppressed by the present Labour government with just the same ruthless determination as Thatcher used to defeat the miners. In other words, the use of the expression “Scargillite” in relation to Andy Gilchrist is nothing more or less than a not particularly veiled threat.

Support the firefighters unconditionally

Despite the threats, however, John Prescott has been wheeled in to try to get negotiations going. The first 48-hour strike, due to take place over the weekend of 26-27 October, was called off at the last minute as the employers’ side finally agreed at least to negotiations, which previously they had refused to countenance unless the FBU conceded a willingness to discuss ‘modernisation’, i.e., substantial deterioration in firefighters’ conditions of employment. It remains to be seen whether a compromise acceptable to both sides will be reached. If not, the strike will go ahead.

If it does, there are bound to be casualties. The bourgeoisie, of course, is most worried about the cost to insurance multinationals of all the claims that will arise out of property that is destroyed but would have been saved were it not for the strike. An insurance lawyer is quoted by Penny Lewis in The Independent of 29 October (‘Out of the frying pan’) as saying:

“During the last major firefighters’ strike, in 1977, which lasted nine weeks, the cost of property losses caused by fire was more than £115 million. Given inflation since then, the potential cost of a prolonged strike to the insurance industry is colossal” (although not all of it is attributable to industrial action). In addition to that, however, it is probable that ordinary members of the public will die because firefighters are not available. Although the government is intending to deploy the army, as it did in 1977, the service it can provide cannot begin to match that of the fire service proper. Even John Prescott had to concede that “up to 19,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen driving 827 ageing green goddesses from barracks and bases will be unable to do the job of 52,000 firefighters and control staff operating more than 3,000 modern appliances from 1,600 stations”. And of course when ordinary people die as a result of there being no fire fighting service, the strike will be blamed, with all the media denouncing the strikers as murderers. The murderers, however, will be those who force the firefighters to go on strike by refusing to pay them a reasonable wage. The murderers will be those who hope to be able to inflict a humiliating defeat on the firefighters so that they can curb the hopes of any other sector that their wages might be increased to some reasonable extent, and who are happy to prolong the strike for as long as it takes to achieve that result. Those are the murderers – and we should not forget it.

These murderers, the slavish Labour MP’s who support the government’s attack on the working class, these henchmen defending the interests of imperialist billionaire capital, only recently voted themselves a 40% pay rise, and in addition have just abolished late night sittings in the House of Commons. From their lives of comfort and ease as flunkeys of imperialism they work themselves up into a frenzy of indignation against workers who try to secure a living wage that is far less than what these henchmen earn. Hopefully, all workers will remember in all the confusion of distorted sound bytes whose side they are on; that the firefighters’ struggle is the struggle of the entire working class to improve its conditions and that, whatever the cost, it must have our unreserved and unstinting support.

Ultimately the only way working people can improve their conditions permanently is by getting rid of the parasitic capitalist class, which cannot live without sucking the blood of workers in order to generate profits for themselves. If the bourgeoisie is anxious to stamp out the resistance of workers to the steady erosion of their pay and conditions, and to convince them that it isn’t even worth fighting because they are bound to lose, they are not motivated solely by the desire to keep wages low. They seek to impart a losers’ mentality in the working class above all so that the latter should never even contemplate the removal of the bourgeoisie, in spite of the fact that they are in number several times more than the bourgeoisie, and in spite of the fact that in reality the bourgeoisie is entirely dependent on the working class for its very existence. It is, however, the historic mission of the working class to bring an end to the era of exploitation of man by man, and in the end nothing will prevent the working class from fulfilling that mission. The fight is long and hard, and subject to many reverses (particularly in recent times the collapse of the USSR) – but ultimately nothing can prevent its success, and it is a privilege for those of us alive today to be able to participate in it to move history forward to its next stage.