Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Firefighters

Time to take sides

The firefighters' strike has put class struggle back on the agenda, writes Lindsey German

Making a stand against New Labour
Making a stand against New Labour

Tony Blair's watchword for industrial relations has always been 'partnership'--problems between bosses and workers can be resolved without reference to strikes or other forms of industrial dispute. But there's nothing like a strike to show the true attitudes of those who preach industrial peace. Partnership works as long as the employers and their allies in the media, the government and among the rich and powerful get their way. When a group of workers, after long and deliberate debate, a democratic and overwhelmingly positive strike ballot, and a serious commitment to negotiation, decide that they have no alternative but to withdraw their labour, then all hell breaks loose. The howls of rage and anguish, let alone incredulity, fill the airwaves and newspaper columns. Class war is back on the agenda.

Not that it ever went away. But while workers were quiescent and docile it could be dressed up as social peace, the public interest and so on. The employers, the Murdoch press and the rest of them believed that the election of Tony Blair in 1997 would continue this social peace. Blair went out of his way to praise the union buster Margaret Thatcher. The union leaders went out of their way to give Blair an easy ride, even though they received precious little in return. That has changed in the past year. The growing anger over pay and conditions in the public sector, the government's determination to press on with PFI, the pro-business policies of New Labour, the opposition to war, have all led to a new militancy. The number of strike days, although still low by historic standards, look like ending up double those of last year. The election of a number of left trade union leaders--'the awkward squad'--is both a reflection of and an encouragement to this militancy.

The incomprehension and anger which has greeted it can be summed up by the editorial in the Financial Times (25 November 2002):

The paper was prepared to support the election of a Blair government in 1997 and 2002 because it felt that this would do no harm to the interests of its business readership. But even the faintest whiff of class struggle immediately ends any notion of 'partnership' and sees the battle lines drawn.

Bleating

It might be thought that after two decades of the employers getting most things their own way they would be prepared to concede that perhaps those in the public sector who have waited so long should receive a little more. Exactly the opposite has happened. Employers and their friends in the media are bleating that the FBU demands are selfish and symptomatic of a 'me, me' attitude and urged the government 'not to budge one inch' from the Bain report.

People who think nothing of bailing out British Energy to the tune of £650 million or of pouring billions of pounds of taxpayers' money into failing rail companies scream at the possibility of £200 million being spared to pay the firefighters. As soon as they demand a fair deal they are denounced in the most hysterical terms. The government has declared that the public spending envelope is sealed and that any increases have to be linked to 'modernisation'--cuts in the number of firefighters and fire engines.

In fact our rulers are greedy for even more to go into their pockets at our expense. The Confederation of British Industry, the bosses' union, is trying to stop the rise in national insurance contributions from employers, arguing that they are being penalised by the government. This when they have seen corporation tax cut still further and when Britain is now one of the cheapest and most favourable environments in the world for capital to invest.

The firefighters' strike is thus immediately and openly political. The demand for a 40 percent rise to £30,000 a year, by a group of workers who have seen their pay eroded in recent years, has turned into a setpiece battle between capital and labour. Except that the supposed party of labour, Blair's New Labour, is taking the side of capital. What are the issues at stake? The first is a decent living wage for public sector workers. The grim warnings that if the firefighters succeed this will open the way for all public sector workers to win higher wage increases begs the question: do we ever intend to pay workers in these areas a decent wage or are we expecting the public services to go further downhill, staffed by a demoralised and casualised workforce?

One of the most dishonest arguments put by the government and its supporters is that there are many workers, especially women, who are more low paid and badly organised than the firefighters. But the experience of defeat inside the working class movement is that when strong sections are defeated, everyone suffers. When the miners and the print workers were defeated in the 1980s it drove down wages in many sectors, and women remained at the bottom of the pile. When groups of workers win wage rises, on the other hand, this tends to raise the level of wages overall. It is precisely this phenomenon which government ministers fear. And it is worth remembering that Sir George Bain, now presiding over a pro-government review of the fire service, set the minimum wage at such a level that it left millions, especially women, in poverty.

The money is there to go to war--no one ever talks about restrictions on weapons or military spending. There should be money to pay these workers--but it requires altering the priorities of society as presently organised, and it especially means taxing the rich and the corporations so that they carry some of the burden which at present they are forcing on us. It also means challenging the gross inequalities which have widened the gap between rich and poor, and where average executive pay rose by 16 percent last year. The fact that one man, Jean-Pierre Garnier of GlaxoSmithKline, can see fit to demand a £20 million pay package gives some sense of the lack of contact with reality and greedy arrogance which characterises the bosses' philosophy.

Cuts and flexibility

The second issue at stake is cuts and flexibility, or in management jargon, 'modernisation'. The Bain interim review demanded overtime, more part time working, cuts in night-time staffing (when there are fewer fires but more people die) and less union control over work. John Prescott has added that there will be 'ample opportunity' to cut jobs in the next two or three years. The union's 'modernisation' proposals include tailor made (and so safer) uniforms, better maternity leave, facilities for women in fire stations such as separate toilets, and more training for fire prevention. It is easy to see which set of demands is dictated by the balance sheet and which are in the interests of the workforce and of public safety. Workers throughout the private and public sectors recognise what their bosses' 'modernisation' means: longer hours, worsening conditions and poverty pay.

The third question raised is the double standards of the employers. We are told in no uncertain terms that a 16 percent rise over two years for firefighters would amount to nothing less than catastrophe, while those at the top of society continue to enrich themselves. Tony Blair suggests 20 percent for hospital consultants--who no doubt will hold the country to ransom by moving into the private sector if they do not receive this remuneration--but denies anything like this figure for low paid public sector workers. Most importantly, however, the dispute raises the relationship between New Labour and its supporters. Tony Blair has said that he will not give in to the firefighters. It is said that Alastair Campbell is urging him to stand firm in this showdown with the unions in order to strengthen his position. Blair is backed by the Murdoch press in particular, which has urged him to 'do a Maggie' and smash the FBU. The Tory party is firmly behind the government.

This puts Blair at odds with the vast majority of Labour supporters. A recent poll which showed that support for the firefighters grew after their first two-day strike also showed a clear majority of labour supporters against Blair's policy. The battle lines have been drawn with Blair and his backers on one side, and the majority of trade union members and large sections of the working class on the other.

The FBU strike is by no means the only issue where this has been the case. The fundamental contradiction of Blairism and the New Labour project is that those who vote Labour want very different policies from those carried out by Blair's government. Support for more public spending, renationalisation of industries such as the railways, an end to PFI and more rights at work are very high in general, and especially among Labour voters. Opinion polls show more people opposed to war than in favour of it, and this rises when Labour supporters are considered. There is also widespread distaste for the 'fat cats' and support for generally redistributive policies.

Unions and labour

The face of the enemy
The face of the enemy

In short, Blair is coming into conflict with millions of people in Britain--and there is much pent-up demand for change. While the arguments of the Sun in support of Blair have some take-up among working class people, they are dismissed by most Labour activists who see Blair's support for big business as directly contrary to their interests. These people have been increasingly losing patience with the government. If the firefighters are forced into a long strike, and if--as is certain--Blair backs Bush over war with Iraq, then there will be many thousands who will decide to tear up their Labour Party cards in disgust.

The unions formed the Labour Party a century ago. Their money still provides much Labour funding, and their activists and full-timers provide many of the canvassers at election time. In the past two years there have been growing voices of dissent inside the unions, with a number reducing the amount of funding that they give to Labour and with a significant minority calling for the democratising of the political fund to allow unions to donate to other parties, such as the Socialist Alliance. Ironically, FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist argued against such a development at his union's annual conference last May. It will be interesting to see delegates' response at next year's conference following New Labour's frontal attacks on the union.

The question of working class political representation now becomes a key issue and many are debating why they should continue to fund Labour when it acts against the working class. The Socialist Alliance has begun to establish itself through votes such as the 13 percent for Paul Foot in the Hackney mayoral election, beating the Liberals and Greens. It can point towards a socialist alternative to Labour which is likely to win increasing support as the implications of government policy over issues such as the war and public sector pay become clear.

As we go to press, Blair is talking tough about not giving in. But the government is not in a strong position. This is a very different dispute from the miners' strike in 1984-85. Thatcher spent years preparing that strike by taking on different groups of workers, and she was prepared to use repression to break the strike. Far from 'doing a Maggie', Blair is in no way prepared, and any attempt at serious strikebreaking will create huge opposition in the labour movement. Other prime ministers have talked tough but been unable to deliver--look at Edward Heath in 1974. Even now, Blair is having to use the miserable John Prescott and Ian McCartney because of their union links.

Blair's success in supposedly taming the unions has been exposed. The bosses' panic, as they discover that solidarity still exists and that the unions are far more popular than a few years ago, is palpable. The government is about to embroil us in a highly unpopular and dangerous war, which will be extremely costly in every sense. And waiting in the wings is a growing economic crisis. Doctrines of 'prudence' have failed even in their own terms. Gordon Brown has now admitted that he will have to increase public borrowing massively because of the 'black hole' opening up in the economy. This after years of saying that public spending would have to wait--now he is saying it will have to wait even longer. The consumer boom is only being sustained on the basis of record levels of personal debt, which will have to be paid at some time.

We are facing a turning point in labour politics--and now is not the time to back off. Everyone should get behind the firefighters, not just with collections but with solidarity action like the London tube workers. If we want to reverse the fortunes of millions of the poorest, most exploited and most oppressed in Britain then we have to take the government on. As the politics of the European Social Forum demonstrated, we speak for millions around the world, and a new movement is coming through which is increasingly going to make its voice heard on the streets and in the workplaces.


Them and us in the battle over pay

A victory for the firefighters will help all on low pay
A victory for the firefighters will help all on low pay

An MP has to get by on just £55,118 per year. But there are a few perks to help them in what is, no doubt, a very difficult job:

  • Each MP is allowed an annual staffing allowance that varies between £61,980 and £72,310 to pay for two or three full time staff--many employ relatives.

  • Each MP gets a standard package of 3PCs, 1 laptop and 2 combined printers/scanners/copiers/ answer machines and associated software.

  • Each MP can claim an incidental expenses provision of £18,234 for expenses for running an office. There is also a general service budget to help 'train' MPs and their staff.

  • A Supplementary London Allowance of £1,572 is payable to members for inner London seats, and certain others, to reflect higher costs in London. It is not paid to ministers with an official residence in London.

  • Additional Costs Allowance of £19,722 per annum reimburses MPs with constituencies outside inner London for expenses incurred in staying overnight away from home while performing parliamentary duties.

  • If an MP has a car or motorbike they are given a motor mileage allowance of 54.4 pence per mile for the first 20,000 miles then 25.1 pence per additional mile for travel by car between Westminster and MPs' constituencies and their homes, and for other approved journeys. Those who have bikes get 7p per mile.

  • MPs are entitled to free stationery, free inland telephone calls from parliament and free post.

  • If MPs are forced to return to parliament during their extended recess all their expenses are reimbursed--this may include the cost of cancelling a holiday.

  • A person who is an MP immediately before the dissolution of parliament, and does not stand for re-election or is defeated, may claim a resettlement grant to assist with the costs of 'adjusting to non-parliamentary life'.

  • If a minister is sacked or resigns they still get 3 months of annual ministerial salary after they hold office.

  • When Tony Blair stops being prime minister he gets a public duties allowance of £72,310. The 'PDA' is to help former prime ministers to meet the continuing additional office costs, which they are liable to incur because of their special position in public life.

  • Source: House of Parliament

  • A new study conducted by Labour Research for the T&G shows that the top ten earners in the FTSE 100 earned a whopping £63 million last year, this adds up to an average of £6.3 million each. The bottom ten earners only managed just over £10,000 each for the year.

  • Top ten fat cats

    Bottom ten earners


    'A lot of people will not pay'

    There is a lot of anger about the position the government has taken over our dispute. We have had a lot of requests to opt out of the political fund and that is only going to grow, as there is huge hostility towards Labour.

    People have been asking for the forms to opt out of the political fund, which is not something that I would encourage--because we need a political fund. What I argue is that it raises the question of what policy the union has towards the political fund. People are supportive of the ideas that we have in London region and the ideas that London has taken to conference in the past--the question is whether their individual frustration will hold out for us to go to conference or not because a lot of people will just not pay anymore.

    Andy Gilchrist won the argument last conference that democratisation would risk the whole affiliation. I have to say that I don't think our members would care less about that at the moment. It will be interesting to see if he tries to put the same argument next time. I will stick with the previous position that we've argued for, which is for democratisation and for the fund to be used for supporting non-Labour candidates. If that brings us into conflict with the Labour Party and their rules then so be it. Let's have a row with them over that, but a coordinated response and an appeal to other trade unions would be better than the FBU simply disaffiliating on its own. I think there will be a growing mood to just disaffiliate.

    I think this will also generalise to other unions as well--it must do. The simple fact is that whenever the argument to democratise the fund is put to ordinary members then it receives widespread support. The problem is that in a lot of unions the leadership is not allowing the debate to take place. The union leadership will come under increasing pressure to disaffiliate from Labour. They will have to come up with something.

    The union leaders have to now effectively deliver solidarity for the firefighters. I hope that our union is working out a strategy to demand that solidarity. Blair is adopting a hard line and effectively saying if you want a pay rise you have to pay for it yourself with cuts--modernisation basically means cuts, firefighters know that but we have to get this message across to the wider public. Blair's position will lead to a hardening of attitudes although people will say we need a strategy to take them on rather than simply saying another lot of talks will resolve it--people will say, yes we'll talk to the government anytime, but we need to start stepping things up in terms of a wide ranging campaign.
    Matt Wrack, London Regional Organiser FBU


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