Fire in our bellies

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On 16 September, 2,500 firefighters (well over half of those not on duty) marched through London to the headquarters of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) to demand an end to the policy of mass sackings being considered by management and the Tory-led fire authority.


Photo: Tom Walker

When this was not forthcoming, it was announced from the steps of Brigade headquarters that we were serving them seven days notice of our intent to ballot for strike action. This was followed the next day by the result of a ballot for industrial action short of strike; a 95 percent yes vote on a 76 percent turnout.

It is clear a serious confrontation is developing in the LFB, but what are the issues at stake and how does this dispute fit into the wider context of working class resistance to the Con-Dem government's agenda?

From the outside the issues at the heart of the dispute can seem complicated and obscure. In fact they are very straightforward. The fire authority has initiated a process that will lead to all of London's firefighters being sacked by the end of November. They will then be asked if they want to return to work on new contracts with a changed shift pattern. Brigade bosses want to change the start and finish times of the shift from a nine-hour day and 15-hour night, to two 12-hour shifts.

This is significant because it opens the way for a reduction in night-time cover and the movement of people from the night shift to the day shift on a flexible basis. The introduction of flexible working is the precondition for large-scale cuts, the break-up of the watch system (the teams in which firefighters work) and attacks on terms and conditions. It goes without saying that the corollary of this would be a weakened Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and a demoralised workforce.

While firefighters are furious at the way they are being treated by the LFB and seem ready to take strike action if necessary, a number of factors contribute to a feeling of deep unease at the prospect of walking out. Firstly, the simple truth is that the results of not having an operational fire service for any length of time can, quite literally be fatal, and this is something that we are more aware of than anyone else.

Secondly, our defeat in the 2002-3 pay dispute hangs like a nightmare over the current dispute. I have not given a meeting in recent weeks where this issue has not been raised. Combating this argument involves an analysis of why we were defeated in 2002-3, the role played by the union bureaucracy and the need for active rank and file participation in the coming battle. Added to this is the widespread perception, shared by most workers, that "the public" already have a low opinion of us and will not thank us for taking strike action during a recession. With close ties to the military, this argument is extended in the fire brigade to encompass the toll being paid by British soldiers in Afghanistan.

Clearly to present a coherent alternative to this view it is necessary to challenge the ideological assumption that "the public" exist at all - after all, are we not talking about cleaners, teachers, tube drivers, etc? - as well as the waste of blood and money in Afghanistan. Beyond this we have to be able to explain that the economics of the "Big Society" amount to big cuts for us and big bonuses for them.

If working people are to impose a different set of economic priorities on society it will take a concerted fight. The impetus for such a fight arises out of the concrete struggles of ordinary people, who, like London's firefighters, find themselves confronted by the rule of capital in simply unacceptable forms. As socialists we must work to support all opposition to the prevailing economic orthodoxy, to develop solidarity between workers, to argue that our chances of winning will be greater if we campaign together and, when necessary, strike together.

For far too long when workers have fought we have fought with the gloves on, yet when they come for us the gloves are always off from the start. We cannot go on in the old ways.

Yusuf Timms is FBU Borough Secretary for Kensington and Chelsea (pc)