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 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.
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. 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.
 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.