In Britain 52,000 firefighters are pitched against a government determined to hand out a defeat that will be held up as an example to the rest of the working class. The stakes are plain: defeat for the firefighters will not only mean they won't have caught up on all the years their pay has lagged behind, but also draconian attacks on their working conditions in the name of modernisation and a 20% cut in the workforce. This struggle has important implications for the rest of the working class because the defeat of the firefighters will have a powerful impact on the whole working class's confidence in its ability to defend itself. This is all happening at a time when massive lay-offs and attacks in the manufacturing and financial sectors are spreading throughout the working class.
The Labour government has made no bones about its resolve to defeat the firefighters and portray them as enemies of the people. As Tony Blair insisted: "This is a strike they cannot succeed in. The consequence of succeeding is not a defeat for the Government. It would be a defeat for the country."
Blair and Co have also has unleashed a torrent of attacks on the firefighters. Ministers portray them abusing their shift system (which involves doing 4 day and night shifts together), because some have a second job in order to make ends meets. Firefighters are accused of being sexist and racist because there are only a few black and women firefighters. There is also a never ending comparison of the 'brave' soldiers 'gallantly' struggling to save lives, and the workers on the picketlines.
This open abuse of the firefighters and the government's determination to 'take them on' has been compared to Thatcher 'taking on' the miners in 1984/85. And indeed there are comparisons. As in 84, today the government has planned for a showdown with an important section of the working class. They want to inflict a crushing defeat on a group of workers who are respected and supported in the working class in order to deliver a message to the whole working class: struggle does not pay. As with the NUM, the Fire Brigades Union is presented as the enemy. Now, as in 84, there is a second prong to the attack: to boast the image of the unions as defenders of the working class. However, in 1984 the working class in Britain and internationally was in a period of rising class struggle, whereas today the working class is still trying to overcome a decade of disorientation and loss of confidence in itself as a class, something that the ruling class is seeking to reinforce. The less the self-confidence of the workers, the more they feel constrained to turn to the unions to defend them against the attacks they face.
The ruling class know that the deepening world recession is going to mean it will not be able to disguise its growing attacks behind the mask of a so-called economic boom. It sees that there is a growing discontent in the working class: council workers, teachers, college lecturers, health workers, and transport workers have all been involved in disputes at the same time as the fire strike. The government - and union - have prepared the ground to take on the firefighters by ensuring that these disputes have either been settled, like the health workers, or been worn down by a series of one-day strikes, like the teachers and council workers in London. In addition the tube workers' ballot around safety issues directly linked to the fire strike has been called off. This is intended to further isolate the firefighters and undermine class solidarity, again making the union appear to be the only defence workers have. Ideological division of labour
The government and 'rightwing' parts of the media have certainly demonised the FBU and Gilchrist, its leader. There have been warnings about a new 'winter of discontent' and comparisons between the FBU to the NUM - Blair describing Gilchrist as a 'Scargillite'. The Sun accused the FBU and other 'militant' unions of wanting to go back to the 70s. Such attacks reinforce their radical image. This campaign also promotes the myth that in the 70s and 80s the unions were militant and helped the working class hold the government over a barrel, when in reality it was the unions which held the workers in check for the ruling class.
On the other hand, the 'leftwing' of the media: the Mirror, Guardian and Independent pretend to support the firefighters, more or less critically. They give out the message that moderation and negotiation are the way forwards, but "Tony Blair doesn't want to listen. Doesn't want to negotiate. Doesn't want a settlement. He is after total victory. That is no way to treat any group of decent workers" (The Mirror, 26.11.02).
In their different ways all the forces of the ruling class are seeking to push the firefighters and the working class into the arms of the unions. FBU plays its part in the attack
As with the NUM in 84, for all its 'radical' image the FBU is playing its full part in this attack. It pushes the idea that the firefighters can win on their own if they are determined enough and if they can keep 'public support'. This illusion played an important part in the defeat of the miners' strike, in circumstances that were much more favourable than those faced by the firefighters today. No section of the working class can win on its own. 'Public opinion' is a trap. It is the solidarity of the working class that matters, which is not a question of financial help but of seeing that firefighters are part of the working class with the same interests and demands as other workers.
The FBU has also carefully manipulated its 'militant' image to isolate the firemen. For months Gilchrist has defended the need for a 40% rise, based on the premise that firefighters are professionals, separate from the rest of the class. This has made it appear that the FBU is determined to defend its members' interests. Once the strikes began the 40% demand disappeared into thin air, to be replaced by the acceptance of a 16% rise over 3 years (essentially the original 4% offered by the employers plus the next 2 years pay increases added on), this being largely financed by modernisation, that is to say attacks on conditions and jobs. The government rejection of this deal was not due to its determination to defeat the union, but in order to further strengthen the FBU's hold over the workers. The government's intransigence makes the union look militant and the strike seems to be about the defence the FBU.
The firefighters have been set up by the government and unions. What all workers need to understand is that the unions are as much the enemy of the working class as the government and media. This does not mean workers should not struggle, but that we have to learn the lessons of all our defeats in order to avoid them in the future.