FBU conference last week geared up for industrial action on a range of issues such as pensions, pay and job cuts, although no timetable for action was set.
Speakers expressed the widespread anger with the government’s pensions plans, which would make public sector workers pay more, work longer and get less. Firefighters will be hit particularly hard. There was agreement on the need for action, but differences over timing and tactics. The executive council resolution, which was passed, called for a membership survey and continued lobbying in advance of action. However many delegates supported a counter-resolution from the London region calling for immediate ballots for industrial action including strikes.
The conference passed resolutions on cuts and austerity, going further than most unions in arguing for progressive taxation and public ownership as an alternative to the neoliberalism of the government and Labour opposition. The union warned that anger on pay was rising, given the employers’ refusal to make an offer last year and the threat of a two-year pay freeze ahead. However the union did not vote for action on the issue. Despite a good debate, the conference overwhelmingly rejected a motion to reaffiliate to the Labour Party. In all these debates, the spectre of the 2002-03 pay dispute was still evident.
One highlight of the conference was the presence of Egyptian union leader Kamal Abbas. The FBU had facilitated his invitation to the UK (along with the TUC and Egypt Workers Solidarity) and Abbas began his tour with a speech at the conference. After Kamal compared firefighters’ sense of duty in rescuing people to the solidarity that binds together the labour movement, delegates gave him a standing ovation and a firefighters’ axe.
Although the FBU is more democratic than most in terms of elected officials and lay representation, the absence of rank and file organisation and socialist clarity was evident in a number of the debates and in the relatively small fringe.