After years of simmering resentment, there are clear signs of a return to industrial militancy.
The most dramatic example of this has been the unmistakable confidence of firefighters and control staff in their fight for a pay rise to £30,000 per year. On numerous rallies and demonstrations, called by the FBU leadership, a militant rank and file were willing to push the action further. There has been a colour and vibrancy about the firefighters' rallies which is reminiscent of recent anti-capitalist protests. CWU general secretary Billy Hayes was loudly cheered at the London rally for denouncing New Labour's warmongering spending priorities.
If the firefighters strike there is a distinct possibility that other workers may take solidarity action. The RMT is currently debating the most effective strategy for delivering solidarity if green goddesses are called in to replace firefighters. This action could shut the tube network and the Channel Tunnel. The potential health and safety implications in other workplaces is something that many trade unionists are eagerly examining. At this year's TUC conference there was unanimous support for the FBU's pay claim. Craig Johnson, the chair of the Arriva Trains Northern strike committee told Socialist Review: 'I think there's no doubt at all that the firefighters have got a great deal of public support. I think it can be taken as read that they've got support across the movement. They've also got support outside the trade union movement. All I'd say as far as the FBU is concerned is they were one of the first organisations that were eager to donate to our hardship fund and they will not be forgotten for their support.'
Recent strikes on the railways and London underground have contributed to an increased willingness to turn strike votes into the real thing. The first strikes against corporations abandoning final salary pension schemes have also helped to put industrial action back on the agenda. The strikes at the Caparo steelworks forced the company to abandon its attempt to withdraw the scheme from existing workers.
The GMB is balloting 160,000 workers employed by private contractors in public sector jobs to try to equalise pay. The encouraging efforts to 'catch up' with other sectors or industries is one that has also been evident in the disputes over London weighting allowances. Doug McAvoy is to ballot the NUT for further strike action on 14 November. Many council workers are now arguing to take simultaneous action. The fear of these struggles giving other workers confidence to mount a more generalised wage drive prompted Tony Blair to mount a ridiculous attack on the firefighters. The pressure at home is building against New Labour just at a time when they want to launch another war.