Twenty thousand people marched through London on a bitterly cold day on Saturday 7 December to show their support for the firefighters. Many were firefighters. Banners and contingents were there from all areas of the labour movement.
The sea of waving yellow and red flags at the rally in Hyde Park suggested flickering flames that symbolised both the day to day work of the firefighter and the reigniting of real trade unionism in Britain.
The firefighters campaign for a decent wage is the most spectacular example of that reignition.
Andy Gilchrist, who has been hounded and demonised by the mad dog-press unleashed by the Blair Government and the bosses they serve, received a tremendous welcome.
He told the rally that if the Government had "the reckless audacity" to once more interfere in wage bargaining, if once again Blair and Brown torpedoed a settlement between the FBU and the employers, then the firefighters strikes would resume. It would be an all-out fight.
Reports suggest that in fact the Government is as determined as ever to prevent any settlement by the firefighters that would give them even a limited victory and thus encourage a continuing revival of trade union militancy.
Discussions are still (mid-December) going on at ACAS. The FBU executive has decided not to strike on 16 December but, if necessary, to resume offensive action after Christmas. 28 January and 1 February has been set as the dates for the first of a series of two day strikes.
Victory or defeat for the firefighters will affect the entire labour movement. It is the concern of the whole labour movement. It is of vital interest to every trade unionist in Britain.
Solidarity action will make the difference between a long and bitter campaign by the firefighters alone and letting the Government know quickly that they have a labour movement to deal with.
There are ways round the laws that prohibit solidarity action. A determined challenge to these laws by a labour movement no longer inclined to let itself be legally shackled by legislation that makes effective trade unionism - solidarity, "secondary action" - illegal, is long overdue.
On one level, the noises being made by trade union leaders and by the TUC in support of the firefighters and condemnation of the Government are encouraging. True, they are not even "talking a good fight", but they are talking as if they have some idea that when Blair targets the FBU, every other trade unionist, every trade union which tries to do its best for its members, is also in the firing line.
They know what Blair is up to. They know that the firefighters have a strong case and a just cause.
TGWU leader, Bill Morris, in a less than militant speech at the rally on 7 December, noticed a little boy with a placard saying, "Give my dad the £30k, he's worth it" and commented: "My son, he's worth a lot more than that, but we'll settle for the £30,000 to be getting on with."
That is true of the firefighters. It is true of all workers.
If the trade union leaders dragged their feet less, wages would be nearer what workers are really worth. If they organise to help the firefighters now, the firefighters will get something nearer what they are really worth. Other workers will be encouraged to fight for a better deal.
Behind the scenes the TUC is most likely putting pressure on the FBU leaders to be more "moderate". They should be organising for solidarity action if the Government forces the FBU to resume their strike.
The trade union leaders can't be relied upon to organise solidarity action. That must come from the rank and file of the unions. The government must be told: Give the firefighters £30k.
The left in the labour movement needs to organise pressure on the trade union leaders. We demand:
- That the TUC recall TUC conference to hammer out a strategy to win decent pay for all public sector workers.
- A serious campaign around existing pay struggles in the public sector.
- The unions back and build the firefighters support groups.
- A national levy of trade union members to help financially those workers taking strike action.
- The trade union affiliated unions demand a recall Labour Party conference.
- The TUC call a day national solidarity day of action on a week day.
Unions should call a special Labour conference!
Real Labour, not new Labour
By Maria Exall, CWU Exec personal capacity
Andy Gilchrist was right: we do need to replace New Labour with real Labour. To do that, the trade unions need to go on the political offensive against the Blairites within their own party.
The unions should set about calling a special Labour Party Conference to discuss the Government's attempt to smash the firefighters' dispute and its threat to use the Tory anti-union laws against trade unionists. This fight has turned into a campaign about the future of trade unionism in the public sector.
Below is an appeal to all trade unionists and Labour Party members to call a special Conference and assert trade union power in the Party against the Blairite minority who control it. If you believe the so-called Labour Government should be supporting working people rather than attacking us, sign this statement!
We the undersigned are dismayed and appalled by the actions of the Government in the firefighters dispute.
We wish to see a prompt resolution along the lines already agreed between the FBU and the employers.
We believe the Government should make the funds available for such a settlement and abandon its present posture of confrontation. We believe that the Government should be serving the interests of the people that elected it rather than following an agenda laid down by big business, the banks and the media.
To that end we pledge ourselves to campaign for a recall Labour Party conference that would reset the course of the Labour Government towards justice for the firefighters' investment in a publicly owned and controlled public sector, and trade union rights.
To sign up, email