Fire Down Below

Issue section: 

The pressure for strikes is rising and could lead to major confrontations with the government this autumn.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), with 55,000 members, is in the middle of a deadly serious pay fight, which is set to lead to the first national strikes in the service for 25 years. A series of big FBU demonstrations in the summer--12,000 in London, over 5,000 in Glasgow, over 1,000 in Swansea, 2,000 in Belfast--were marked by a spirit of confidence and determination. A special FBU conference on 12 September was due to agree a ballot for national strike action.

The government has drawn up contingency plans to use 30,000 troops to scab on any action. Union officials and activists alike are convinced there will be strikes, possibly by late October. It's not only firefighters who are pressing for action.

College lecturers took two days national strike action earlier this year and are looking for further action over pay this term. Unions representing council workers are talking about strikes over London allowance payments. Postal workers were due to start balloting this month over strikes against privatisation. Tube workers were also set to vote for strikes over pay. Other groups, such as university and college support staff, are also involved in pay disputes. A lot rests on the firefighters' campaign. A breakthrough there would speed up the recovery in confidence to take action elsewhere. It would also put pressure on leaders of other unions to act.

There are other signs of how union activists are generalising. Strikes by journalists on local papers in the north of England have spread from one title to another. The successful strike at Glasgow Royal Infirmary last month led to an unofficial walkout at the nearby Inverclyde Hospitals Trust. Over the last 12 months rail workers have won important gains in a series of disputes with different companies.

All these strikes have revealed immense anger with New Labour. That has fed the debate over democratising the unions' political funds. There is still a long way to go. The succession of victories for left wing candidates in union elections is a reflection of the growing mood for resistance, but it does not guarantee that it will lead to successful strikes. The counter-pull from the mainstream of the TUC and from 'traditional' Labour leaders is very strong.

One thing is guaranteed. There is a chance for trade union activists to rebuild traditions of solidarity and rank and file initiative just as Tony Blair becomes increasingly isolated over the war and privatisation.