When deputy prime minister Prescott announced legislation to impose a pay deal on the firefighters "particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism" (BBC news website, 20.3.03), this was just the latest stage in the long-running campaign around the danger of keeping 19,000 troops on standby to cover industrial action at time of war. It is a campaign that started months ago with the first 48 hour firefighters' strike.
Tory spokesman David Davis joined his voice to the campaign by asking "What will you do in the event that the FBU continue to strike ... continue to undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces?"
And the unions were not to be left out of this patriotic chorus. Andy Gilchrist has not only called an offer that is worse than that originally offered by employers last year, the best that could be achieved "in the political situation they find themselves in" (BBC website, 19.3.03); he has also stated that "It would be foolhardy to reject this offer when British troops are about to go into battle" (quoted in Revolutionary Perspectives 28).
This comes after months of the FBU wearing down the firefighters. First they put in a 40% pay claim, justified by emphasising their professionalism, and calling for public sympathy rather than workers' solidarity. Workers were then kept to a demoralising routine of 24 and 48 hour strikes and the whole thing rounded off with a demonstration at the end of last year where firefighters marched in uniform. All in all they have been kept isolated from the rest of the working class, despite the widespread sympathy that greeted their claim last year.
In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that the government has already started imposing the deal before it is agreed: no more money will be available, and the pay increase of 16% over 3 years will have to be paid for by redundancies. Chief Fire Officers have been introducing the organisational structure necessary for this for several months. The fact that the FBU conference rejected the deal shows that there remains much discontent and anger, but the struggle has been contained. Nevertheless, Prescott's legislation will provide a welcome alibi for the FBU when they have to impose the deal (see WR 261). A campaign directed at the whole working class
We should not make the mistake of thinking this campaign is just about imposing a deal on the firefighters, or even primarily about 19,000 soldiers on standby for industrial action. It is above all a campaign aimed at the whole working class, aimed at discouraging struggles. The ruling class knows that it will have to continue attacks on the working class. The war will have to be paid for, and it comes at a time of economic slowdown.
The campaign to discourage the working class does not only include the calls to remain patriotic, to put up with lousy pay deals during the war, but also much more radical-sounding ideologies. So we heard, among many contradictory ideas on the huge 15 February 'Stop the War' demonstration, the call for strikes when the war started; and the firefighters' strikes in particular have been held up as the way to stop the war.
When representatives of the ruling class make such calls it shows that they are aware that the working class today does not pose an immediate threat of widespread strikes in response to the war. On the one hand the firefighters have already been isolated by the FBU; and on the other hand the opposition to the war has largely been mobilised behind bourgeois ideologies, such as pacifism or support for an alternative imperialist strategy more in line with that of Germany and France. But the use of this fake 'workerist' radicalism also shows that the ruling class understands that the working class remains a threat.
Our rulers know the potential for workers to put their class interest above the national interest. The strikes and mutinies during World War 1 culminated in the Russian and German revolutions, forcing them to end the slaughter. The ruling class will not forget this when calculating the risk of any future imperialist adventure.
The working class today, while undefeated, is nowhere near the level of posing such an immediate threat to the ruling class and its war effort. In fact it is still faced with the need to recover its sense of itself as a class, a sense that was very much to the fore during the large-scale struggles during the 1980s, such as the mass strike in Poland in 1980 or the miners' strike in Britain in 1984-5.
In spite of the fact that the working class does not have the self-confidence it had in the 80s, the succession of wars since the 1991 Gulf War is a powerful factor in showing the complete bankruptcy of the capitalist system, as each becomes harder to justify behind a humanitarian smokescreen. This is giving rise to a very important process of reflection on the question of war among a tiny minority of the working class. But this process can only be interrupted by the constant stream of easy answers, false choices and activist stunts being advocated by the bourgeoisie's more left wing spokesmen. The notion that a strike isolated in one sector, drawn out into on-off 24 and 48 hour actions over months and months - and whether or not troops are used to cover for the striking firefighters - can substitute for a whole development of struggles and class consciousness, is just such an easy answer. This ideological misuse of the firefighters' struggle can only increase their isolation from the rest of the working class and demoralise those who fall for the campaign.