Unions must lead the fight back

Denise Christie shows how the FBU is fighting back and calls for coordinated action to support sister unions

There have been many articles written since the crushing defeat for our movement at the General Election. Trade unionists pounded the street and campaigned for the most radical and progressive manifesto we have seen in decades from any main political party. Now, as before, our job is to reorganise and rebuild our workplaces and communities but there is no quick fix in doing this. The Tories are no friends of workers yet we need to ask ourselves why workers voted for them and how we can win those workers back. We can now expect further attacks on pay, pensions, health and safety, equalities and further draconian changes to laws governing industrial action.

Jane McAlevey, union organiser, author and scholar, has been instrumental in changing the way unions organise and build power. Her No Shortcuts book is powerful in its analysis of practical steps to turn unions into democratic forces again. She explains the neo-liberals and far right have built up decades of misinformation and our movement’s only option to combat this is to organise person-to-person, street-to-street, school-by-school, and workplace-by-workplace. Jane’s work is essential reading for everyone involved building power with many activists having benefitted from her training through the STUC.

The FBU in Scotland is benefitting from these organising techniques as part of our current campaign to defend pay, terms and conditions. Members in Scotland are being urged to reject a pay offer linked to broadening the role of firefighters to plug gaps in other over-stretched services – including the crisis-hit adult health and social care sector. The offer is dependent upon firefighters taking on new roles, including non-emergency co-responding with adult social care and health teams in attending ‘slips, trips and falls’. Firefighters fear this will dilute the core services they provide to the public as professionals and will add pressure to an already over-stretched fire service.

FBU officials have been crossing the country, addressing up to three branch meetings a day, to ensure members are properly informed before they cast their vote on a prospective pay deal that could have a huge impact on the working lives of firefighters in Scotland, now and in the future. From those branch meetings, it is clear many do not want to do the work of paramedics – or see appliances tied up while waiting for paramedics to arrive. On one occasion, firefighters had to wait for nine hours before help arrived, and these occurrences are on the rise.

The Scottish Government has a role to play in helping to secure a deal that firefighters are fighting for if the willingness is there. Given that fire and rescue is devolved and given the differences of approach on such issues between the Holyrood and Westminster governments, over the last year the Scottish Government has diverged from Westminster in pay deals for teachers, NHS workers and civil servants. It would be remiss if it wished to make an exception of firefighters.

The FBU wants to see members get a pay deal they deserve – but not at any price. We have always made it clear that we want to get back to negotiations – and will get back round the table if members reject these proposals. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has said the funding invested by the Scottish Government will no longer be available if firefighters reject the current proposal: this is contrary to what the FBU was told at a meeting with the STUC and Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Finance.

The SFRS and Scottish Government must listen to the concerns of why firefighters are against the proposal and commit to continue the funding and negotiations so that firefighters get a deal that they deserve. The FBU will be continuing its political campaigning with members writing directly to their MSPs to highlight the concerns it has with the SFRS proposal and making the case for continued investment to support further negotiations.

Previous successful lobbies of the Scottish Parliament by firefighters resulted in an increase into the SFRS budget after many years of cuts. We will be lobbying the Parliament again, where firefighters from all over Scotland will making their voices heard.

Whilst this is the current campaigns the FBU is involved in, our movement has got some serious decisions to make if we are truly to defend every single right we have fought for and won. If there ever was a time for a coordinated response to the attacks on our pay, pensions and working conditions, then the time is now. Our movement must not sit back and take the attacks and the pain sustained with them. We have been guilty in the past of allowing sister unions to ‘go it alone’ when they have taken on the fight. We can’t abide by our motto ‘unity is strength’ if we are only playing lip service to those words. We have never been handed any of our gains on a plate. We have had to fight politically, industrially and legally to keep what is rightly ours. We need to energise and organise our members, be ready for the attacks that will be coming, prepare coordinated campaigns, and organise to fight like we’ve never organised before.

Denise Christie is the Scottish Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).