Fighting fire in the class struggle

Submitted by AWL on 26 December, 2018 - 10:56 Author: Sacha Ismail
'We rescue people, not banks' - FBU slogan adopted from Spanish firefighters

In 2018 the Fire Brigades Union, which organises operational firefighters, fire control staff, fire brigade officers and others in the UK fire and rescue service, celebrated its hundredth anniversary as an independent union. For its centenary the FBU has published a book, Fighting Fire, about the last thirty years of its history.

(For centenary resources on the FBU website, see For an interview focused on this that FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack did with The Clarion in May, see 'One hundred years of the Fire Brigades Union'.)

The FBU is a fairly small union (today about 35,000 members), but it has played a distinguished role in the modern British labour movement. Its history is a story of how the fire and rescue service, its structures and practices, and the science and technology it uses have continually been influenced and shaped by firefighters' struggles and their union. It is also rich in trade union and political lessons for labour movement and socialist activists.

After an introductory chapter which summarises the whole history, Fighting Fire's remaining eight chapters are based partly on chronology but also around a series of industrial and political themes. These are: the nature of the FBU as an industrial, workplace-rooted union; the legacy of the victorious 1977-8 pay strike; the story of how the 2002-4 "30k" pay dispute against New Labour was defeated; the years-long wave of defensive struggles which followed; the post-2010 battle over firefighters' pensions; equality and diversity in the service and the union; the role of the union and firefighters' self-organisation in the development of fire and rescue, as a public service and a broader scientific endeavour; and the FBU's work in the wider labour movement, including international solidarity.

The 'culture' of the book

Other unions have published books about their history, but they seem mostly to be glossed-up idealisations, told exclusively from the perspective of the union's current leadership.

In contrast Fighting Fire presents a wide range of, often conflicting, opinions and perspectives within the union, making use of interviews with a large number of officers and activists and quoting them directly. Disagreements and conflicts in the union are explicitly described throughout the book - on a variety of industrial disputes, the union's relationship with the Labour Party, representation of oppressed groups, the EU referendum and other issues.

Moreover, Matt Wrack's foreword theorises this by flagging up the attempt to proceed in "a spirit of openness and pluralism", with "different voices and opinions... heard", even if "some parts may make uncomfortable reading and might provoke sharp debate". He goes on to rightly attack "a high handed and dismissive approach to debate" in the labour movement, and assert the need for a "culture of debate and democracy which accepts that there will be different views and sometimes sharp differences of opinion" as "central, and essential, to building any movement to challenge those in power".

Wrack and others seem quite happy to say they think they got things wrong, again a refreshing change from much of today's labour movement and left.

Big issues

As well as facilitating pluralism, the structure weaving narrative and analysis around large chunks of interview allows the combination of a workplace-oriented and bottom-up focus with attempts to address bigger social and political questions. Reading Fighting Fire I rarely felt I was lost in the welter of industrial detail without a thematic framework or attempts to draw political conclusions, or on the other hand that the analysis was loftily divorced from the experience and struggles of firefighters.

From end to end the book is permeated with a focus on class struggle as the driving force of society's and the labour movement's development. Some big trade union and political themes emerge and re-emerge throughout. A number of them are also highlighted quite sharply in Wrack's foreword.

One is the conception of unions as a framework for workers to be self-organised, with the wider structure rooted in strong and democratic workplace organisation and consistent attempts to build and rebuild this organisation by developing new layers of workplace organisers and leaders. This is contrasted explicitly to a 'servicing' model of unions and implicitly to the nebulous 'organising agenda' that is now widespread.

Another theme is the need for unions not only to be political in a general sense, but to develop rounded working-class consciousness and educate their members about the need for a different social order. The FBU is one of few unions committed in its fundamental rules to replacing capitalism with socialism and Fighting Fire discusses this. The closing chapter on the union's politics focuses mainly on more immediate political struggles, for instance in terms of its support for Corbyn and decision to reaffiliate to the Labour Party, while the foreword discusses socialism as such, contrasting it very clearly to social democracy.

This political approach is shown by the work the union has done, among other worthwhile and important campaigns, specifically to demand nationalisation of the banks and high finance - pretty much alone in the British labour movement. The FBU has a much more serious commitment to solid political education than most other unions and this is reflected in the tenor of the union's work as well as the relatively high average political level of its activists.

The book is also strong on the relationship between workers' organisation and questions of oppression and diversity, with a lot of material on women, BME and LGBT firefighters' experiences and struggles. As with the sections on science, service standards and safety, you get a very strong idea of how in this respect the union has often led the way in reshaping the fire and rescue service. Even for socialists who expect such things the story presents revelations and surprises. Although there has been a fairly bitter controversy within the FBU over aspects of oppressed groups' representation - and again the book discusses these arguments openly - my impression is that the FBU contrasts very favourably in these areas to another small, left-wing union in a male-dominated industry, the RMT.

These questions - how to renew and build up a labour movement rooted in strong workplace organisation, the need for a movement shaped and driven by clearly socialist ideas, and the question of divisions and oppression within the working class - make up some of the basic stuff of socialist politics.

History lessons: the FBU vs New Labour

Fighting Fire contains a concise summary of the FBU's earlier history which is fascinating and instructive. Take the decision during the Second World War to recruit new 'auxiliary firefighters' - highly controversial because many saw them as 'dilutees', undermining the professionals - which took the union's membership from less than 4,000 to more than 70,000 in two years. Clearly there are a number of lessons there for today.

The book focuses on the last thirty years or so. The first half of the period was shaped by the legacy of the largely victorious national pay strike at the end of 1977 and the second shaped by the defeated strike of 2002-4 and many defensive battles in the years that followed.

Both disputes provide important pointers on why the labour movement failed to rebuild its strength after Thatcherism and instead continued to retreat - with such disastrous consequences when capitalism went into crisis after 2007. But it also reminds us of the possibilities that existed for bringing about a different and better outcome (and new possibilities in the future).

What befell the FBU under Blair and Brown is comprehensively documented in the book; it vividly illustrates the neo-liberal, anti-working class character of New Labour. The Blairites followed up their victory over the FBU - achieved by tabloid witch-hunting, use of war powers during the invasion of Iraq and repeated interventions to prevent the fire service employers from settling - by going on the offensive to 'liberalise' the fire and rescue service. There are many aspects to this which could be cited; but it included abolishing the structures for governing the fire service through consultation with the union which had existed since the 1940s! This consolidation of power in the hands of senior management led to a shredding of national standards, producing the situation underlying tragedies such as Grenfell.

During and following the pay dispute, the Blairites were willing, or eager, to not merely scupper a pay deal but lay waste to a public service in order to smash a small but unusually strong union. They did not succeed fully because, having elected a new leadership, the union regrouped and stood firm - but that is what Blair, Brown, Prescott et al aimed to do. This shameful record allows you to understand why the FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party (wrongly in our view), but also why many socialists (us included) supported independent left election candidates against New Labour Blairites in this period.

The aftermath of the dispute tells you something positive about the FBU membership. Although Fighting Fire is tactful and presents different viewpoints about what happened, it seems to me to indicate quite clearly that the old leadership had no strategy going into the struggle. Having brought about a defeat, they then tried to spin it as a victory (including in a 2005 book they commissioned, United We Stand).

Observing the limitations of the existing leadership and becoming disillusioned with it, rank-and-file members voted it out in favour of generally more radical, militant and competent leaders. That is what allowed the union to regroup, retreat in an orderly way - not passively, through some pretty heavy struggles - and remain relatively strong in the face of attack after attack, despite losses.

In the fire and rescue service as more widely, New Labour blazed the trail for the vicious assault against the working class - both those providing services and those receiving them - which came in all areas after 2010. By and large unions went along with this and converted an opportunity to rebuild their strength into a new round of defeats.

The FBU is one of the exceptions. Of course, a union of 35,000 members cannot by itself compensate for wider failings in the British labour movement, but the FBU deserves its place in the relatively small group of unions that did better and showed a different road was available.

The pensions fight

More recently the FBU's years-long fight over pensions, combining extensive industrial action, militant direction action, political campaigning and use of the courts (as I write the union has just won a major legal victory over the government) highlights similar issues.

The debacle of the wider 2010-11 public sector pensions dispute is surely central to why strike action is now at such a low level and union organisation in decline, despite workers suffering relentless austerity. Five million public sector workers - many highly unionised and willing to fight over a core issue - were defeated after one, or in the case of a few unions, two token strike days. They were defeated because the leaders of the big unions in reality gave up before the action started. They went to sectional talks in the summer of 2011, called the 30 November strike as an exercise for members to blow off steam and - despite the magnificent response - gave up in December.

The FBU did not take part in November and only began its industrial campaign after the big unions had capitulated; activists I respect have argued this was right. While I am not convinced of that, it does seem the FBU fought seriously for a united labour movement response. When that was ruled out by most unions collapsing, it fought much longer and more tenaciously than others, winning significant concessions, showing that a serious struggle was possible and again hinting at what might have been if the bigger battalions had done the same. (The same is true of the FBU's more general approach to fighting cuts and the agenda of government and management.)

The working class and the labour movement are still paying the price of most union leaderships' failings after 1997 and after 2010.

The rank and file and politics

Fighting Fire is an excellent book. There are some things it treats inadequately - for instance, the issue of the anti-union laws and the demand for nationalisation of the banks, both important areas where the FBU has been strong but only touched on in passing. The sections on international solidarity are interesting and in some respects impressive, but also eclectic. They list a variety of international campaigns without much consideration of how they fit together or the contradictions between some of them, seemingly reflecting dominant labour movement prejudices (though with better political discernment than in many unions, eg Unite).

The wider weakness in the book probably reflects a weakness in the FBU itself (and to be fair all unions, but in the FBU it takes a particular form). I'm referring to the apparent lack of political rank-and-file organisation which can pressure the leadership, keep it on the right course, correct it and provide a framework for hammering out strategies and producing new leaders. Even the best leadership does not remove the need for such organisation; with it, the best union can be - better.

FBU members seem to be relatively speaking very well organised at a workplace-level, but much less so in a more generalised and political sense. Prior to the election of Matt Wrack and other left dissidents in 2004-5, they were involved in extensive attempts at building rank-and-file organisation - and Fighting Fire discusses this - but these initiatives have since faded away.

As described above, more FBU activists are more solidly socialist than in probably any other union, but there is - again particularly in contrast to the past - a lack of organised socialist activism in the union. Wrack has a revolutionary-socialist background, is still on that wavelength and consequently plays a distinctive political role in the wider labour movement; and there are other politically impressive activists and leaders. However, the general left culture of the union seems, despite the union's commitment to socialism, its education programs and so on, much more diffuse.

The book discusses this question too, but I felt it was a bit dismissive of the role or potential role of socialist organisations. To be fair, the two organisations that have had members in the FBU recently, the Socialist Party and the SWP, have hardly distinguished themselves - both counselling not to reaffiliate to the Labour Party and to support a Leave vote in 2016, advice the union luckily ignored.

These last comments notwithstanding, FBU members have many reasons to be proud of their union's history and record, and Fighting Fire is a book every socialist should read.

• You can buy Fighting Fire here.

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