For the first time in 25 years there is the threat of a national fire-fighters' strike. This prospect has been the focus of workers' attention in Britain for months. As with nurses and ambulance workers, fire-fighters are respected by other workers for doing an important job which can involve saving lives. This strong feeling of support for the fire-fighters has tended to take the form of sympathy for a 'special case'. The work of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has helped undermine prospects of sympathy being transformed into real working class solidarity. Attacks on the fire-fighters
At present a full-time fire-fighter, after four years, earns £21,531, and receives no extra pay for extra hours or overtime. The union demands are for a 40% pay rise to £30,000, for the same rate for those who do not work full time, but do other jobs and can be called on when necessary (the 'retained' fire-fighters), and the Emergency Control Staff and for a future pay formula. What the union has put forward has got a positive response from the membership, but in reality these demands are aimed at dividing the workers
The desire for equal pay levels is a mark of real solidarity among workers, and the 9-1 ballot for strike action shows that the fire-fighters realise they have to fight to defend their interests, to improve their pay and conditions. However, the level of the pay demand has acted as the pivot for a formidable deployment of forces against the fire-fighters and the rest of the working class.
The government has used the 40% pay claim to launch a vicious attack on the fire-fighters in order to set other workers against them. In Blair's words: "No government could yield to that without putting up people's interest rates and their mortgage rates and causing havoc across the public sector, because other people in the public sector would say: If they are getting 40 percent, I want 40 percent.". Right from the beginning there is the propaganda that a pay increase for one sector has to lead to economic hardship for other workers - rather than the truth that workers' impoverishment comes from the crisis-ridden nature of the capitalist mode of exploitation.
The government has also denounced the fire-fighters for putting the public at risk, and used this as a justification for the use of the army to break possible strike action. Just as the Labour government did in 1977.
In addition, the government, along with all the media, has constantly been comparing today's situation to that of the 'winter of discontent' of 1978-79. The message being put across is that workers' militancy can only lead to workers being worse off - just look at what happened then: workers' struggles led to 18 years of Thatcherism. This message was also pushed during the council workers' strike in the summer. It is a very poisonous campaign because it reinforces the widespread feeling in the working class that it is not able to do anything to defend itself. This is a disorientation that has dominated the working class for more than a decade, and is particularly dangerous because many workers under 35 years old won't remember the important struggles of the 70's and 80's.
We do not have space to go into detail about the real nature of the 'winter of discontent', apart from to say that it was not the workers who brought Thatcher to power, but the ruling class who needed to replace the increasingly threadbare Labour Party, whose image as a 'workers' party' was wearing very thin due to its massive attacks against the working class. False friends
Adopting a more 'conciliatory' stance for the government we have seen the intervention of the Deputy Prime Minister (and veteran trade unionist) John Prescott. Union and local authorities (who run the Fire Service) have begun negotiations and made 'progress' (at time of writing). Prescott let it be know that there was more money for pay but "In reality, 40% was just too high". This was a very clever move because the talks were halted with the bosses having offered a 16% rise (with 'strings' of course). The union leadership went back to 'consult' the membership about calling off the proposed 8-day strike in the first week of November, in order to allow more talks. The only aim of this 'consultation' was to create division among the fire-fighters with all the false alternatives (stick to the 40% claim, accept the 16% offer, continue negotiations, go ahead with the strike etc).
The image of the FBU is of a 'militant' union. Its leader, Andy Gilchrist, appears to be the model of a real fighting trade unionist. On the FBU's website it states that "the Fire Brigades Union is part of the working-class movement and, linking with the international trade union movement, has as its ultimate aim the bringing about of the Socialist system of society". This 'radicalism' has been reinforced by Gilchrist's apparent 'intransigence' in the defence of his members interests, and the attacks on him by Blair and throughout the media.
However, behind the image, the FBU is the same as any other union, existing to control the struggles of the working class. Central to this control is the attempt to divide and rule. This was well demonstrated in the initial reports of the fire-fighters' response to the leadership's proposal to suspend the strike. Powerful divisions were created amongst the fire-fighters. These divisions were planned by the union, which knew that for many fire-fighters the link to the increase in pay for retained and control room staff was more important than the 40% pay demand. The fact that the bosses have agreed to this link, along with the rumoured 16% offer, has been an ideal way of sowing division. Some fire-fighters are for settling, while others will be for continuing the strikes (or the negotiations) because the deal offered is tied to 'modernisation' measures, that is, cuts and other measures which mean higher levels of exploitation.
These divisions have been exacerbated by the differences between 'militant' and 'moderate' regional union bodies putting forward differing recommendations - for or against calling off the strikes, whether to focus on non co-operation with future reviews of pay and conditions, whether to concentrate on demonstrations or other local initiatives. The fire-fighters are divided between 'militant' and 'moderate' regions, stations and individuals, as the union shows its effectiveness in policing the workers and thereby defending the national capital.
The fire-fighters are caught between the hammer of the government and the anvil of the unions. The government has made an offer, but with 'strings attached', while the union sows divisions among the workers with the false alternatives of negotiations or strikes or strikes under certain conditions etc.
This situation reflects the wider problems facing the working class. There is a general discontent faced with the mounting attacks on living and working conditions, but also wide-ranging illusions that somehow the unions will defend workers interests. These illusions have recently been reinforced by the election of more 'militant' figures to the leadership of several major unions. The current campaign of attacks on the fire-fighters shows that holding such illusions can only lead to workers being defeated.
The fire-fighters have been set-up - the 40% demand, the months of union/government preparation, the campaign about the 'winter of discontent'. In particular, the question of sympathy for the fire-fighters as a 'special case' - because they do a very dangerous job - has been used to separate and isolate them from other workers. Instead of seeing that the whole working class face the same attacks we have had the barrage of propaganda comparing different pay rates. This is an essential part of the union work of encouraging this sectoral isolation. The only way that workrs can defend their interests in the long term is to extend their struggles. In order to prepare the ground for this there is an urgent need for reflection and discussion throughout the working class - on the means of struggle and the union obstacles that have to be overcome.