By Nick Holden
After suspending conference on 11 May the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) exec went into extensive negotiations with the employers over the conditions they wanted to implement in stage two of the 2002 pay award.
A "compromise" agreement was struck and agreed by the Executive that firefighters would give up the right to "stand down time". The deal followed widespread unofficial action over the issue - stand down was widely seen as a dispute which the FBU leadership couldn't lose, and couldn't afford to. Yet apparently they were prepared to "give it away".
Later the FBU heard that the employers want more conditions. And on 10 June the Executive agreed to put a proposal to conference calling for industrial action short of strike action.
That's not good enough. The firefighters need strike action to win on this one.
If the union shows weakness, the employers will always come back for more concessions. That is why strike action is so necessary.
Three other motions are on the agenda, calling for strike action if a third payment - the 4.2% raise is due on 1 July - is delayed.
A large part of the rank and file efforts to make the Executive accountable will depend on whether the conference is able to block the leadership's plans to witch-hunt the new "Grassroots FBU" rank and file body which was pivotal in keeping members informed when the unofficial action spread last month. Grassroots already commands impressive support within the union, and a confrontation at conference may well not go in the Exec's favour.
Since the Exec has made itself so unpopular, its position on retaining Labour Party affiliation is likely to voted down by delegates, as a means of expressing their anger. However, those advocating a complete break with Labour haven't yet spelled out any alternative strategy for getting the FBU's issues addressed in politics.
They risk weakening the political voice of the union by withdrawing from the Labour Party without a fight, because the FBU will then be just one more "lobby group" trying to persuade politicians of all colours to listen to them. It would be far better to stand FBU-sponsored candidates against prominent Labour councillors and MPs, both in open elections, and in selection contests inside the Labour Party, and demanding other unions, especially in the public sector, support them.
Delegates need to make sure that all motions are discussed at conference and that there are no more suspensions of conference so that the leadership can avoid difficult debates.
Grassroots FBU should be built into a real rank and file organisation that can challenge the leadership at every turn, and in every election.