I attended the Fire Brigades Union conference in Blackpool, 15-17 May, as a visitor for the Free Our Unions campaign. The conference saw debate about the union’s industrial strategy as well as significant decisions and stances on a number of big political issues.
After FBU members resoundingly rejected a pay proposal from fire service employers which would introduce open-ended contracts, without a clear definition of firefighters’ role, in return for only the possibility of a pay rise, the union is moving towards a national dispute. The conference debated various aspects of strategy and tactics in taking the campaign forward. An emergency motion was passed to strengthen the wording in the Executive's motion in terms of the urgency of action to withdraw from non-contractual work.
Issues of pay and job roles are intertwined with questions about national standards, so this is a debate about reasserting a universal, high-standard fire and rescue service after years of cuts and deregulation, as well as about firefighters’ conditions. The reality of tragedies caused by growing holes in the service, and in particular Grenfell, was very much part of the discussions.
The conference voted unanimously to make the FBU the first national union to back the Free Our Unions campaign. That was after a packed Free Our Unions fringe meeting organised by the union’s Eastern and West Midlands regions, which I addressed along with FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack, anti-blacklist activist Dave Smith and youth climate striker Patrick Wakefield.
Patrick’s speech evoked a very strong response in the meeting, and was particular timely because after it the conference also debated and passed a radical motion calling for a Socialist Green New Deal, including demands going well beyond the mainstream of what has generally been fought for under the Green New Deal banner so far.
But the highpoint for me, and I’d guess for many of the delegates, was hearing from Spanish firefighter Miguel Roldán, who the FBU is campaigning to defend from the Italian government’s threats to prosecute him for his work rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean. Miguel was warmly welcomed and his impassioned defence of migrants’ rights and free movement got a good response; Matt Wrack spoke afterwards drawing out many of the same themes and making the case for an internationalist labour movement.
A real weakness in terms of internationalism, however, was that the conference did not discuss Brexit. After deciding to take a strong left-wing Remain stand in 2016, the FBU has been much more divided on the issue since the referendum. Anti-Brexit socialists in the union need support and encouragement to change that.
The left-wing initiatives reported here were generally supported by the national leadership but came from officers and activists somewhat further down in the union. It should be said that the FBU’s Eastern region played a particularly important role in all of them.