notes from an fbu picket line

by Joe Thorne

The FBU has held two eight hour strikes in the past fortnight.  The cause?  The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) has threatened to unilaterally impose new terms and conditions, specifically a new shift pattern, and has said that any of the 5,500 London fire fighters not willing to sign up to them will be sacked.

The 90 day consultation period, which they are entitled to under law, expires on 26 November.  The LFEPA board meets for the last time before this on 18 November, and will decide whether to press ahead.  The FBU is therefore seeking to put the pressure on before this date.  If the changes are forced through regardless, it does not necessarily mean the fight is over – but it’s clear that the coming weeks are important. A 47 hour strike will therefore be held beginning on Friday, 5 November, at 10am.  Bonfire night.

The pickets I talked to said that they accepted that there should be changes to shifts, but that they ought to be negotiated.  They believe that the proposed shift changes are an attempt to introduce a system under which, later, it will be easier to reduce the number of fire fighters, particularly at night.  Amongst those I talked to, there was strong approval of the union.

The pressure is certainly on.  Many have had 20% pay docked from this month, on top of the money lost from strike days.  The employer is alleging technical breaches of working regulations.  Apparently these are entirely spurious, with no basis in written policy or established procedure (and is being challenged by the FBU through grievances), but this sort of step will be a blow to many, especially in the run up to Christmas.

In this report, however, I want to focus mostly on the dynamics of the strike, and the role of the scab company, Assetco.  For background, see the article in the last issue of the paper.

Assetco

Assetco was originally proposing to run one fire engine each out of 27 stations.  The strength of picketing has evidently made either the scabs or their employer feel uncomfortable, so they’ve changed the plan.  Instead, three engines are being run out of each of nine stations: Shoreditch (Old St), Wembley, East Ham, Wandsworth, Old Kent Road, Croydon, Hillingdon and Hammersmith.

Assetco was not successful in getting engines into all these stations.  For example, at Shoreditch yesterday, they made three attempts, each blocked by an FBU picket line.  There were approximately 150 pickets there, according to one witness.  This was despite the presence of five security guards, including one with a Rottweiler, and a van load of police – who made some threats but decided against using force.  When scab engines cannot enter fire stations, they are being parked on a roadside nearby.  In Shoreditch yesterday, for example, three fire engines with Assetco scabs were parked on Dunloe Road, near the junction with Queensbridge Road – i.e. behind the Mecca bingo on Hackney Road.  Obviously, this is public property, and no one should be able to prevent anyone going to talk to the scabs.

The other important locations are Southwark Bridge Road, the London Fire Brigade Training Centre where scabs are being dispatched from, and Ruislip, where there is an Assetco depot which stores the 27 engines used by scabs.  On the first strike day, Saturday 23rd November, there were minor clashes at 5.30pm at Southwark Bridge Road, as hundreds of FBU members tried to stop scab engines re-entering the complex at the end of their shift.  Police eventually managed to intervene.  Yesterday, 1 November, at the same time of day, police outnumbered FBU, and

(Note: another source suggests that Hillingdon is being used in a similar way to Southwark – it would be useful if this could be confirmed.  We also need to confirm what times we expect there to be scabs entering Southwark Bridge Road.  This was 5.30pm on both previous occasions, but there may be more or different times, due to the longer strike period.)

Fire fighters believe that scabs are not, in general, trained fire fighters, but security staff looking to make a few quid on the side.  There are some fire fighters and ex-fire fighters working, which explains the balaclavas worn by scabs being ferried in and out of Southwark Bridge Road – but this is not universally the case, according to FBU pickets who have talked to scabs.

Popular myths

One popular misconception is that FBU strikers are putting others at risk of death.  In fact, pickets I spoke to reaffirmed that they were would instantly respond if life was at risk.  “If there’s a fire, we’re going to go and have a look.  If it’s a warehouse with no one inside, we’ll let it burn down.  If there’s a life at risk, you’d have a job to do to stop everyone here going to sort it out.  That’s why we joined.”

This is not merely hypothetical.  According to the FBU:

1.     In Dagenham, after several calls from a block of flats, the private contractors turned up, but did not know how to connect the hose to the fire engine, or where the water hydrants were.  Local firefighters saw their problem, and despite being on strike, showed the contractors how to use the equipment.  They then entered the building to ensure that no lives were at risk, before leaving the private contractors to cope with any damage to property.

2.     In a Hackney block of flats, striking firefighters saw private contractors trying, and failing, to break down an outside door with a sledgehammer.  Concerned that there may have been a risk to members of the public they decided to help, and by using the sledgehammer properly, were able quickly to gain entrance and establish that there was no danger to life. Then they told the private contractors to go in and do their job.

Elsewhere, apparently, a number of scabs working for Assetco were arrested by police for turning on the blue flashing lights in order to go to McDonalds.  These things have not been widely reported by the media.  The fact that a Fire Brigade Station manager ran over and seriously injured a picket with his car yesterday, in Croydon, will probably not receive a Daily Mail front page.

Supporting the strike

What can we do to support the strike?  For such a high profile dispute the left has been relatively poor at making a materialist analysis of the dispute, and what support is needed.  On the basis of the above, I would suggest that we need, firstly, to prioritise joining pickets at the nine stations which Assetco appears still to be making an attempt to use – see list above – whilst being aware of the possibility that an attempt may be made of the rest of the original 27.[1] Secondly, we should work out when the flashpoint, or flashpoints, at Southwark Bridge Road will be, and mobilise as many people as possible to get down there and make a serious effort to stop scabs crossing the line.  If even a third of the people who turned up for the demo in central London two weeks ago and determinedly occupied the picket line, it would be difficult for the police to do much about it – and would be of much more worth.  Thirdly, we could consider approaching pickets when they are stationed on roads, public property, away from fire stations. If we better organised, the Ruislip depot could be a target.

If 8 hour shifts have stretched Assetco, it seems likely that a 47 hour strike will stretch them seriously.  Strong pickets can stretch them further, and anyone who wants to see this strike be strong, and win, can help with that.

 


 

[1] Beckenham, Croydon, Dagenham, East Ham, Enfield, Euston, Hammersmith, Hendon, Heston, Hillingdon, Holloway, Homerton, Lewisham, North Kensington, Old Kent Road, Plumstead, Poplar, Shoreditch, Sidcup, Southall, Southgate, Stratford, Surbiton, Tooting, Walthamstow, Wembley and Westminster.

7 thoughts on “notes from an fbu picket line

  1. From Facebook two hours ago “F36 Walthamstow Green Watch CREW have refused to ride the PL with their CM in charge. They have stood up and been counted! Don’t leave it to the Crew Managers alone to fight the cause. Well done Walthamstow! Now its time to support F36! Pass it on.”

    As I understand it, PL basically means fire engine here, and Crew Managers (who aren’t on much more money but who have some team leader type responsibilities) have, in some places, been withdrawing goodwill by refusing to head up an engine when there should be someone more senior there. I’d welcome any corrections from someone with a better understanding… as I understand it, if this was applied universally, it would make things very difficult to run.

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  2. Actually, PL is “pump ladder. But you get the point. This is not an isolated incident and has gone on in a number of places. CMs – and possibly others now – are being docked 20% pay as described above.

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  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/04/firefighters-call-off-strike-bonfire-night

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/05/fire-brigades-union-strike (SWP)

    So the strike has been called off. A variety of views being expressed on Facebook, from negative to supportive of the decision. Here’s a one from Paul Emberry, an FBU official, which indicates the content of what has been won so far:

    “Personally, I opposed the decision to call off strikes, but the regional committee democratically decided a different strategy. I respect that decision and believe we are still well-placed. First, we have managed to place the threat of mass sackings out of harm’s way for three months. Our industrial campaign has already shifted the employers from 12/12 with strings, to 11/13 with more strings, to 11/13 with no strings at all. That’s a real achievement. I am very, very confident we will get something even better from arbitration. So much so that, if I am wrong, I will seriously consider my position. Anything less (even slightly) than 11/13 will be a defeat for the employers, whose bottom line has always been 11/13 with some strings. Stick with us, people. We have not given away our strike mandate. This is the time to have faith and hold our nerve.”

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  4. other views: “If this is true, why aren’t the union letting us know directly, instead of all thus hearsay.”

    “I dont mean to be so pessimistic, but how can I feel any other way, im a CM* (ex) on 80% pay, jacked my temp(which I wanted to keep), got ready to picket today with my colleagues on white and green watch. No call off of strikes whilst 188 is in place I heard, well I never realised that meant suspending the inevitable was also OK. All I hope is sooner rather than later the FBU release a statement explaining this mess and chill a lot of people, including me , out a bit, before there is s a revolt and the strength we had is destroyed!!!!!”

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  5. It would be good to find out what has been achieved in the negotiations that led to the calling off of this strike. If the threat of sackings and unilateral contract changes has been temporarily withdrawn then we can proudly proclaim that round one in this dispute has gone to the FBU. This would be the perfect answer to the morbidly pessimistic views of those right wingers (and some ulra-lefts) who maintain that strikes are always sold out, and any trade union action to defend terms and conditions is a waste of time.

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  6. Well… I agree somewhat. I think if you read the comments above – and, more generally, browse the facebook groups used by FBU members, it’s clear that a) some concessions certainly appear to have been achieved, b) there is nonetheless some lack of clarity about what has been achieved, c) some people are pissed off with those who chose to call off the strike, and d) some are backing them up. Meanwhile, e) no one is characterising the deal so far as a straight out, uncomplicated victory – people who’re defending what has happened so far are often doing so on the basis that more will be achieved at arbitration.

    In my opinion, where the ultra-left (ICC etc) are wrong in this sort of stuff is that they see the union as entirely external to the workers themselves. But the workers are not a homogenous mass. The workers disagree about how to evaluate the dispute so far. Declaring it a straight-forward victory from the outside is as wrong as declaring it a straight-forward “sell out”. Both are totally external points of view, which various politicos want to impose an unclear situation.

    It does sound as though the union was put under alot of pressure by the injunction. That re-raises the question of whether we ought to be emphasising unions breaking such injunctions, or workers defying them independently without official support. Frankly, I suspect if the latter did happen, people like Matt Wrack would be in a difficult position, but probably quite pleased. But that doesn’t mean that from within his position he is capable of achieving the same thing through the union, officially.

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  7. ‘Declaring it a straight-forward victory from the outside is as wrong as declaring it a straight-forward “sell out”. Both are totally external points of view, which various politicos want to impose an unclear situation. ‘
    I agree with this. The people who are best able to asses if this is a step forward are the fire-fighters themselves. The idea that the ‘external’ left is the best judge of this is wrong. Also I have no problem with breaking the anti union laws but that is a tactical as opposed to a principled question. Again the workers in struggle and the leadership of these struggles are often in the best position to judge this.
    Not only do I believe that ‘Socialist Consciousness’ can’t be brought into the working class movement from the outside, but I also think that strategies on how to run disputes are best left to the workers involved in the disputes themselves.

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