Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Firefighters strike, and criticism from an FBU rep

I see that an FBU representative from Camden, Ben Sprung, has written a missive to Socialist Worker denouncing its coverage of the firefighters' strike, and particularly its criticisms of the FBU leadership's decision to call off the strike. And he criticises your host in this passage:

Criticism within the labour movement is fine. But using the bourgeois press to attack a union is quite another. Yet Richard Seymour, a well-known SWP member used the Guardian’s Comment is Free website (5 November) to slate the FBU. He wrote: “Suspending the strike now will give the fire bosses time to regroup, get better organised and perhaps return to its previous belligerent form with a stronger hand.” [3] We don’t know whether Seymour is a trade unionist, but he certainly never bothered to speak to the FBU before launching his attack.

As this was published online to make way for debate, I'll make a few points in reply. First of all, I didn't use the bourgeois press to "attack a union". I criticised the decision to call off the strike, in the context of an article that was clearly supportive of the union and the strike. This was constructive and sympathetic criticism. To construe this as an "attack" on the union, "slating the FBU", is at best grossly misleading. Further, given that articles supporting the union and attacking the lies of Coleman and Dobson are hardly in abundant supply in the "bourgeois press", a slightly less defensive tone wouldn't go amiss here. It doesn't sit well for Sprung to give the impression that the only support he wants is uncritical support - but I'm afraid that's exactly the impression he gives.

Secondly, I don't accept that I need to have direct communication with "the FBU" (by which is presumably meant the FBU's press office) before making such criticism. This was an opinion piece, not reportage. But as it happens, I have been in contact with FBU members throughout the dispute, and I did speak to FBU members about the decision. Some of my conclusions drew from that direct contact. I also received feedback about my article from FBU members. On the basis of that feedback, mainly positive, I believe that Sprung is misleading himself if he thinks that the decision to call off the strike was not a serious disappointment to many FBU members.

Just to put this letter in context, it comes as the arbitration process has resulted in two offers to firefighters which will now be voted on. I won't go intodetail here, but two things stand out in these offers. The first is that the employers have shifted a little bit from their previous stance. For example, on the hated practise of 'direct standbys' (where firefighters have to be ready to attend a nearby station, from their own home and at short notice, in order to make up for inadequate staffing), the employers have moved from demanding that firefighters attend stations within 10 miles to demanding that they attend stations within 7.5 miles. Secondly, both offers involve a degradation of working conditions for firefighters, compared to present conditions. If either of these offers is accepted, firefighters will now be working either 10.5 hour day shifts, or 11 hour day shifts. It's a hell of a long working day either way, and no firefighter would accept this if it weren't for the threat of the section 188 hanging over their heads. The obnoxious fire authority chief Brian Coleman is understandably delighted with these offers - gauging correctly that the arbitration service hasn't exactly been neutral in this dispute. And he's not alone. Brigade chiefs were reportedly ecstatic about the arbitration body's decision, one official telling shock commentator Rod Liddle that this meant the FBU was "fucked".

So, the issue here is whether a better deal could have been obtained. I maintain that the FBU would have been in a much better bargaining position if it had gone ahead with the strike on the weekend of 5th November. Management, as leaked e-mails disclosed, were not in a good position to handle 48 hours without the firefighters. Assetco simply weren't up to the job, as they repeatedly proved, and the fire authority bosses were panicking - this is why they resorted to character assassination in the media. Sprung maintains that the union would have lost public support if firefighters had let people die on bonfire night when the management had moved on the key issues. But the firefighters had already proven that they were not about to let people die due to Assetco's incompetence - they left picket lines during previous action to deal with situations that Assetco were not equipped to deal with. That was never what was at issue. What was and is at issue is whether London's property owners, businesses and insurance companies are going to be happy with the London Fire Brigade for forcing a strike over completely unnecessary changes to the shift patterns, whose sole purpose is to facilitate cuts.

Now, I could be wrong in these arguments. But if so, the way to refute them would be to calmly deal with their substance rather than to over-react to some friendly criticism.

ps: if you want a laugh, you absolutely must listen to this interview between James O'Brien and Brian Coleman - forward to about 92 mins for the interview. Coleman storms off after being repeatedly tripped up by his smarter interlocutor.