December 5, 2002

The government needs to settle the fire strikes as much as the FBU

Seumas Milne
The Guardian
Thursday December 5, 2002

After years of relative industrial peace, establishment outrage at trade unionists who dare to withdraw their labour to protect jobs and living standards shows no signs of dimming. For politicians and journalists who cut their teeth during the 1980s, the fire dispute has offered a perfect opportunity to revive the archaic battle cries of their youth.

By the beginning of this week, the propaganda offensive against the firefighters had reached fever pitch. Media commentators, dripping with class contempt and egged on by Alastair Campbell’s central academy of spin, brayed “no surrender” at the government as they reached for every anti-union clich√© of the Thatcher years, from “Scargillism” to “Spanish practices”. Ministers from Tony Blair downwards competed to find the most withering put-down. The kind of personal smears meted out to the firefighters’ leader Andy Gilchrist – and the threats to his family they have triggered – were of course routine in disputes gone by. And Blair’s insistence that today’s “unaffordable” pay increase is tomorrow’s inflation for any group of workers is pure Jim Callaghan economics.

Now the union has suspended its latest strike in favour of conciliation talks, the anti-union press can hardly contain itself. “Gilchrist knows he’s losing”, the Sun bellowed this week. But those scenting the FBU’s blood may yet be denied their prey. The siren voices pressing Blair to “do a Maggie” overestimate the strength of the government’s hand. For a start, the labour market is now tighter – and therefore more favourable to trade union action – than in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The most recent reliable opinion poll shows that public support for the firefighters has remained solid. The ferocity of the government’s attack on the FBU, combined with the strength of the union’s case, has helped to unite the trade union movement behind it – as highlighted by the TUC’s decision to call a national demonstration of support this Saturday. The armed forces are becoming restive at playing firefighters and the comparatively easy ride of last week’s eight-day stoppage is unlikely to be repeated in the event of future strikes. But most importantly, for all its celebrated newness, this is a Labour government, which risks doing itself serious damage with its own MPs, supporters and voters if it is seen to try and break a popular group of public service workers and their union.

This was, after all, originally a dispute about pay, with the firefighters out to recoup the 21% they have slipped down the pay league since their last national strike in the late 1970s, and win some reward for extra skills and the 55% more incidents they have attended in the past decade. But now the union has made clear it would accept a 16% increase over two years, the government has hardened its line and turned the dispute into a set-piece confrontation about “modernisation”.

The trouble is that after five years in power, new Labour is in danger of giving modernity a bad name. What started as a catch-all mantra to justify the party’s acceptance of the main social and economic changes driven through in the Tory years has now become a codeword in public services for privatisation, closures, job cuts, longer working hours and flexibility on the employer’s terms. The only sense in which any of this is modern is that it apes the most backward-looking practices that have again become the norm in the private sector in the past two decades.

Underlying the government’s demand for modernisation for extra cash is the idea that real-terms pay increases are only justified if they are underpinned by higher productivity. But as with other labour-intensive public services such as education, crude measures of productivity make little sense in the fire service. The increased overtime, 10,000 job cuts and station closures the government wants would mean mean longer working hours, halt the drive to recruit more women and black firefighters and a poorer quality service. If crewing is reduced at night, when most fire deaths occur, the risk must be that the number of deaths will rise. Since the government-sponsored Fire Cover Review argues that up to 70 lives a year could be saved and property damage reduced by ¬£1bn if more firefighters were employed, the likelihood must be that the opposite would be the case.

The hope in both the FBU and among some in government is that the current talks will produce some kind of workable accommodation away from the media bearpit. But the expectation in the union is that it will take further – probably shorter and more targeted – strikes to achieve a deal. If the FBU keeps its nerve and maintains wider union support, it should still be able to secure a decent pay increase while holding back the worst of the modernising barbarians. Tony Blair will need a face-saver, but he also needs a settlement.