By Nick Holden
Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leaders are claiming a victory in the final stages of their two year long pay dispute. They say management are finally paying previously-agreed pay increases from the 2003 pay deal.
However, as the rank and file body Grassroots FBU point out, “the employers were able to delay payment of the 3.5% and 4.2% because of the vague and inadequate pay deal negotiated by the FBU leadership in 2003”.
The whole history of the FBU pay campaign is one of continual retreat — right at the beginning of the dispute at the end of 2002 the leadership called off strike days in return for nothing more than talks with management.
Eventually, under pressure from everywhere except their own membership, the FBU leadership capitulated.
They have sold their members’ terms and conditions and the public’s fire safety in return for a pay rise which could have been won far more quickly and easily if the initial strategy of strike action had been led with commitment and backbone.
However the FBU leadership worked tirelessly to avoid that. Proposals for a directly elected strike committee in the FBU were blocked, and conferences were closed down to avoid debate. The rank and file were treated as a stage army, to be wheeled on and off stage as it suited the plans of the union’s national negotiators. A massive 9-1 majority for strike action was frittered away until the FBU membership no longer believed that they could win a pay increase without giving up major concessions in their working conditions.
Fortunately Grassroots FBU, an open and democratic rank-and-file body, has provided a focus for much of the frustration, and it has been able to marshall much of the anger which might in other circumstances have led to individuals walking out of the FBU in disgust.
In the FBU’s region 7, covering the West Midlands and the surrounding counties, a recent election for the Executive Committee member saw Grassroots FBU supporter John Vernon beat the sitting candidate, Dave Whatton. Whatton was directly implicated in the deal, and is the national official leading the witch-hunt against recently elected National Officer Paul Woolstenholmes.
Coming so soon after Woolstenholmes’ own election victory, the defeat for Whatton underlines the precarious position the existing leadership find themselves in.
There are signs that the EC is beginning to crack, with disputes opening up between the Gilchrist clique and some of the newer members of the EC.
Some within the leadership would like to step up the witchhunt, and have, apparently targetted a number of high profile supporters of Grassroots FBU, but under union rules they need the involvement of the EC member in a particular region to carry out any suspension. That has so far not happened.
The opportunity is there for the rank and file of the FBU to insist that all EC members now publicly disassociate themselves from the witch-hunt, and thus bring the leadership back under control.
Grassroots FBU also point out that with Whatton gone, the FBU leadership should immediately re-instate Paul Woolstenholmes.
FBU Assistant General Secretary Mike Fordham joined in the witchhunt recently by penning an article in the union’s magazine blaming the rank and file website “30k” for losing the long-running dispute. Branding all those who are now critical of the union leadership as “politicos”, Fordham repeats a number of classic witch-hunt generalities. Clearly he, and the FBU leadership, are rattled by the increasing opposition in the union. Andy Gilchrist is due for re-election next summer and many will be doubtful of his success.
With the fall-out from the national pay deal likely to be an upsurge in local disputes, and next year’s pay claim only a few months away, the FBU cannot afford to “forgive and forget” with the current leadership. Other regions must follow the lead from region 7, and activists must throw themselves into the task of building the Grassroots FBU network — so that the new leadership, whoever they are, can’t treat the union like their own personal property.