UK firefighters strike as
government torpedoes pay deal
Labour prime minister mobilizes troops as strikebreakers
Firefighters rally in Glasgow, Scotland, during second strike. The unionists oppose moves that would lead to cuts in jobs and firefighting services, and are demanding a raise.
BY CAROL BALL
GLASGOW--More than 1,000 firefighters rallied in Glasgow’s St. Enoch Square November 23, demonstrating their determination to resist government attacks and press home their case for a wage raise that would defend their living standards.
The unionists have pushed ahead with their campaign of rolling strikes, pickets, and rallies in face of the government’s mobilization of almost 19,000 troops. The soldiers operate as strikebreakers alongside police now using modern red fire engines as well as the aging "Green Goddess" fire trucks.
The Glasgow rally came on day two of an eight-day strike by more than 50,000 firefighters across the United Kingdom, the second stoppage in the current campaign of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). The union plans two further eight-day strikes in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday.
Firefighters from all over Scotland--from Highlands and Islands and Grampian in the north, to Dumfries and Galloway in the south--joined the rally. A number of workers brought banners. Throughout the day, every fire station was simultaneously picketed by other members of the 6,839-strong FBU in Scotland.
"We’re digging in," said a participant from Pollock in Glasgow. "The more we’re mucked about, the stronger we get," said David Bennett. The 18-year firefighter from the Crewe Toll station in Edinburgh was referring to the action by the Labour government in stepping in at the last minute to scuttle a deal reached between union officials and the Local Government Association (LGA) employers just a few hours before the strike was due to start.
"How the employers thought they could agree to this is completely beyond us," said a spokesman for Prime Minister Anthony Blair. "If people think the government can be held to ransom through strike action, that it can be bounced with uncosted, half-baked proposals in the middle of the night, with little or no modernization to talk about...then they’re not living in the real world," he added.
One bosses’ spokesman told the Financial Times of "sighs of relief [among employers] all over the country that we are not saddled" with the agreement.
The FBU-LGA deal had provided for an immediate 4 percent wage raise and subsequent raises that together amounted to 16 percent over 12 months, along with a procedure for negotiating changes in working practices.
The union had earlier rejected a proposal that made the 16 percent award conditional on the implementation of specific changes demanded by employers.
The FBU originally staked a claim for an hourly take-home pay of £8.50, a 40 percent raise over current levels. (£1 = US$1.55).
Blair’s spokesman attacked the union for defending working practices that he claimed had been "set in formaldehyde for 25 years." "Until the FBU gets serious about modernization," he said, "it is difficult to see how this is going to be resolved."
‘Modernization’ means cuts
"It’s not ‘modernization,’ it’s cuts" said David Mackie, a firefighter for 10 years at Crewe Toll station at the Glasgow rally. The government and employer proposals for changes in working practices would mean slashing jobs and service, he said.
"The government is trying to break the union," said a woman FBU member from Toll Cross, "because they want cuts and they know the union will fight it."
"We’re not going to give in to blackmail," Mackie added, referring to claims by government ministers that the strike is putting lives at risk.
In London, the FBU issued an appeal for other trade unionists to visit the picket lines at the capital’s 114 fire stations. Pickets at the Kingsland fire station in Dalston said they were prepared for a long haul as they described the huge support they continued to receive.
Construction workers from a nearby building site had dropped off scaffolding and other materials for the construction of a weatherproof picket shed, they said, while truck drivers frequently stopped to offer wooden pallets as fuel for the brazier and workers from a local bakery had delivered doughnuts and cakes.
Passing cars hooted in support and pedestrians dropped money into their collection bucket.
The government is frightened that "if our employer pays us the increase, other public sector workers will line up for the same," said Mark Longhurst, a picket at the Southwark fire station in south London. "This government has let them down too. They promised better health and public services and now they’ve sold them to private companies. You only have to look at the railways. You can’t improve services if the profits go into a few individuals’ pockets."
Much at stake for employers
Much "will be lost if the battle lines now drawn are not held," editorialized the London Times on November 23. The big-business daily backed the government’s intervention against the "unconscionable" November 22 agreement and attacked the FBU’s "cavalier decision to go ahead with a strike."
Britain’s fire services "operate under a framework laid down in 1936," claimed the editorial. "Efforts to reform FBU restrictive practices have been blocked by union obduracy."
In the eyes of the editors, "The future of industrial relations is now on the line.... At stake now is not only discipline in public sector pay, but the whole thrust of Thatcher-era labour reforms.
"New Labour is at its best, Mr. Blair told his party in September, when it is boldest. He should not have had to walk through fire to prove it; but now that the FBU has put him and the country to the test, he must do so."
Confederation of British Industry director general Digby Jones struck a nationalist note in opposing the FBU campaign. "To have a confrontational element for all of public services does not help in delivering what Britain needs," he said.
The Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, urged Blair to send troops across picket lines to commandeer fire stations and their equipment. The government rejected such an escalation after it was opposed by Michael Boyce, chief of the defense staff. "I am extremely concerned about the military effectiveness of our armed forces," he said at a November 20 press conference.
The British military is preparing tens of thousands of troops for deployment in the Middle East as part of the coming invasion of Iraq.
According to the BBC, Boyce "insisted he would not send troops to strike break by crossing FBU picket lines but would expect the police to carry out that sort of operation." The general emphasized "the ‘morale and motivation problem’ of sending soldiers straight from operations in areas like Bosnia and straight into firefighting duties."
Jonathan Silberman in London contributed to this article.
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