Matt Wrack of the London FBU spoke to Jill Mountford
JM: It's a long time since the last strike days. How do you think the membership are feeling? What are the prospects for further action?
MW: The long break since the last strike action, almost seven weeks, partly due to Christmas and the New Year, means many members feel more than a bit left in the dark and confused about what's happening and how we're going to win this dispute. If, as is anticipated by many members, the employers make no significant increase on their last offer of 11% over two years with their modernisation strings attached, then we have to stop cancelling our strikes and get on with the business of winning this battle for pay.
JM: Are you saying the time for negotiations is over?
MW: We can negotiate and strike at the same time. There can be no more cancelled action. We have to use the might of the nine to one vote in favour, and push on until we win. This was a winnable dispute four months ago, and is a winnable dispute now. The massive mandate now has to be matched with a will to win.
JM: Do your think there needs to be more rank and file control over the dispute, and if so what can be done to make this happen?
MW: The best way forward now for the FBU is to establish as quickly as possible a national strike committee, a committee that goes beyond the Executive Committee (which is elected on a regional basis).
It needs to be a committee that is made up of democratically elected representatives from each brigade and is responsible for organising broad, open discussion amongst the rank and file membership about strike tactics and strategy. It needs to have full control over all aspects of running the dispute.
Over the next two weeks there are going to be two national meetings called by the leadership to discuss the dispute. These meetings will be made up of one delegate from each region and one delegate from each brigade. There will be around 70 to 80 delegates. The left should be pushing for the establishment of a national strike committee that meets regularly and makes binding decisions between conferences and ballots of the membership.
JM: Is there any rank and file or broad left organisation at the moment in the FBU?
MW: No, and this is a problem for the rank and file in the FBU. There hasn't been a functioning broad left for almost a decade and there's no rank and file organisation either. This is something we need to rectify if the rank and file are to have a real voice in the union."
JM: The £30k website (www.30kfirepay.co.uk) seems to have played a really significant role so far in rank and file members getting a chance to debate and discuss. How useful has this been and is it enough?
MW: The £30k website, which is unofficial, has played a really important role in developing debate, discussion and arguments amongst many members and others supporting the FBU. It's a great forum for ideas and debate. The London region has an email list with over 10% of London members on it. This too has been a really important tool in getting information out to the membership. Members of the list print stuff out and distribute it around fire stations and beyond. But neither the £30k site or the email list are any kind of substitute for democratic structures that involve the membership in real decision making about strike tactics and strategy.
JM: Do you think it was the right decision of the FBU to ignore the Bain Review that came out just before Christmas?
MW: The FBU were entirely correct to boycott the Bain inquiry - and we have members in London and elsewhere who stood by that policy and refused to talk to Bain during fire station visits. However, I think it was a mistake not to issue a reply to the Bain Report itself. For sure the FBU's dispute is with the employers, and on one level we don't much care what Bain has to say, but the fact is that the employers and the Government do. They have, through Bain, put forward their ideas for the modernisation of the fire service.
The press, always eager to kick workers fighting for better pay and conditions, have given the Bain Review sympathetic coverage, and that means the public have questions they want answers to. We should have taken up each and every issue Bain raises and knocked it down. We could do this with great confidence and it would have been the right thing to do, helping public support for our claim and bolstering our own members over what is a long and quiet lull in activities. I think an opportunity has been missed.
JM: London region has been one of the most militant regions. Why do you think this is so, and what can be done to win the arguments in some of the other regions?
MW: During this dispute, London members have played a very good role. Over the last few years in London there has been an emergent militant current among the activists. This means that the Regional Committee in London has been prepared to argue with the leadership and to control its own officials. The economic situation in the south and south-east has played a significant role in developing the militant mood over pay. London firefighters are no longer prepared to put up with the low pay that means firefighters sleep on fire station floors because they can't afford to live anywhere near to where they work.
During the dispute the leadership has banned Executive Council members from reporting how other EC members have voted. This was a bad day for our union. We should be moving towards more openness. If a rep votes a particular way he or she should be able to justify it, and all members should have a right to know.
JM: Just how crucial do you think the next few weeks are in keeping the dispute going?
MW: When FBU members in East Anglia and London thought the last eight day strike was likely to be called off, we quickly put forward proposals for four 48 hour strikes over the Christmas break. We felt this was crucial to keep up momentum amongst the membership and keep up the pressure on the government and the employers. Despite this being an obvious tactic we lost the proposal at the EC. If the next set of strike days go ahead it will be ten weeks since the last strike. The groundwork we do now over the next few weeks will be crucial to sustaining this dispute and winning.
JM: With a war looming, do you feel the FBU will come under increased pressure to end the dispute?
MW: It looks ever more likely Blair will have dragged Britain into war on the side of the US against Iraq in the next few weeks or so, despite public opinion being against this war. The FBU should feel no compulsion to halt strike action during Blair and Bush's war on Iraq. We didn't call the war and we didn't set the time for it. We have a legitimate pay claim and we should strike to win that claim.
JM: What tactics and strategy should be employed now to win this dispute?
MW: We could win our dispute sooner rather than later with the backing and solidarity of the rest of the trade union and labour movement behind us. The London region has voted in favour of a solidarity conference being called over the next month or so, aimed at trade unions and their members to raise the idea of how we can build solidarity financially and otherwise across the trade union movement. We put this resolution to the EC and it was voted down.
Regardless of this the London region will forge ahead to build a solidarity conference that will strengthen not only the FBU but all public sector workers. We need to discuss and plan solidarity action like the health and safety action the RMT organised at the beginning of our dispute. We need to spread this kind of solidarity into other unions and workplaces. We also need to discuss and plan out and out solidarity action wherever we can get it, and we need to be discussing how to put pressure on the TUC to call action - regardless of the law.
This conference is very important to all rank and file workers. It's about basic trade unionism and how we have to develop it if we are going to win back some of the things we have lost over the last few decades and more besides.
We can win this dispute. We simply need to take some control of it.