A grassroots activist, socialist and outspoken critic of the current FBU leadership has been elected General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, defeating incumbent Andy Gilchrist. Matt Wrack beat Gilchrist by 12,833 votes to 7,259, in a poll which saw 40% of the union’s membership voting, a high turn-out for a union election.
The “old guard” around Gilchrist are continuing their efforts to smear Wrack, and others, for their involvement in “Grassroots FBU”, a rank and file body formed after the union collapsed to defeat in the pay strike last year.
They are presenting a report to the FBU conference, meeting in Southport on 9-13 May, naming Wrack among those involved in Grassroots FBU, and alleging that their involvement was contrary to the interests of the union. They are also attempting to force through a change in the union’s rules in order to make it easier for the union’s national officials to discipline activists.
Last year, when the leadership tried to attack Wrack and others in London for their involvement in Grassroots FBU, they were stopped from doing so by the London region member of the Executive Committee, Mick Shaw, who refused to suspend the activists until he was shown evidence of them breaking the union’s rules. Now the Gilchrist leadership want to avoid a repeat of that inconvenience.
It’s unlikely, however, that this attack, or the ongoing investigation into the elections this year for Assistant General Secretary and General Secretary (both won by Wrack), will enable the Gilchrist faction to unseat Wrack, whose large majority gives him a mandate from the FBU membership for a new direction, and a resurgence of the fighting spirit which took the FBU into the dispute over their pay formula.
The moves against Grassroots FBU are more likely to be a desperate last throw of the dice from a discredited ex-leadership, and the review of the election is likely to find that the former leadership of the union were at least as guilty of canvassing during the elections — banned under the FBU’s rather archaic rules — as the left!
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All this takes place as important battles loom over pensions, public sector “reform” and cuts to the fire service under the guise of modernisation. The conference was expected to endorse resolutions authorising strike action over the attacks on pensions and the closure of emergency control rooms. Wrack has already issued statements committing the union to a fight against the regionalisation of control rooms.
The FBU were slow to join the general union reaction to the Government’s threat to raise the retirement age for public sector workers, but FBU activists now expect the union will pick up the pace.
Paul Embury, a delegate from London, said, “Following Matt Wrack’s election the members now have a leader they want. This can help to give them confidence that the union will be willing and able to progress their fights.
“Our members have been under the hammer for the last couple of years from the employers and the government. But the union remains intact and there is a feeling now that we need to unify and turn the tide.”
The real test for Matt Wrack is whether his election can turn around the union in time to organise an effective fight against both regionalisation of control rooms and the attack on firefighters’ pensions. This week’s conference must be just the start of a fightback. The work done by the Grassroots FBU initiative must continue - getting Wrack, and other activists, elected to the leadership of the union, is a step in the right direction, not the ultimate objective.
“I am delighted to have been elected. There are a number of challenges on the horizon, not least of all, the fight on pensions and the regionalisation of control centres. Internally to the FBU, we need to bring about a fighting and democratic union. I look forward to rolling my sleeves up and getting on with the job.”