As national fire strike looms, FBU annual conference must be recalled! / Roger Blackwell

THE FBU’s executive council has today (6 September) released a statement on pay. The statement informs members that a ballot for national strike action will be held in response to the unacceptable 2% pay offer made by the fire service employers back in June.

This blog today makes the demand for an urgent recall of the union’s annual conference and for the leadership to set out, in clear terms, a properly-defined pay claim.

Before coming to those issues, a few points about timings. The executive council confirmed in its statement that the strike ballot will not commence until at least the week commencing 10 October. This will mean a period of 15 weeks between receipt of the employers’ derisory offer and a ballot getting under way. It also means that any strike action would not take place at the earliest until well into November.

Questions surely have to asked about why the process of mounting a campaign of action in response to the unacceptable offer is taking so long.

The annual pay award for firefighters and Control staff is scheduled to be implemented on the first day of July every year. We all knew in the spring that a wave of unrest was developing across the trade union movement and was likely to result in a “summer of discontent”. Indeed, the executive council put a policy statement to the union’s annual conference in May which highlighted how the lack of decent pay awards over recent years, combined with the worsening cost-of-living crisis, had created acute financial difficulties for firefighters and Control staff. That policy statement authorised the executive council to conduct a “vigorous” pay campaign in alliance with other unions. The statement also made clear that any such campaign might include strike action.

Yet, despite conference agreeing that statement on 12 May, a formal pay claim was not tabled by the leadership until 19 days later. To further delay matters, no formal offer was received from the employers until 27 June (just four days before the pay settlement date).

There is no evidence that any meaningful negotiations took place during those few weeks. And while not very much at all was happening in the fire and rescue service, much of the rest of the trade union movement – including the likes of railway and postal workers – was already gearing up for strike action.   

The FBU’s pay demand should have been tabled in good time. There should then have been a period of intensive negotiations during which the employers should have been put on notice that in the event an acceptable offer was not received by the pay settlement date of 1 July, the union would look to move quickly towards industrial action.

And the moment it became clear that there would be no acceptable offer, the union’s leadership should have moved swiftly to hold a recall of annual conference as a launch pad for a national strike ballot. Had they done so – and even taking into account timelines determined by legislation – we would have been ahead of the game and well-placed to join the wave of action currently taking place in other industries and services.

Instead, we are playing catch-up, with the danger being that the action taking place elsewhere will be over by the time we get going.

At any rate, it is vital now that annual conference is recalled. If we are to take the significant step of holding a national strike ballot, then conference – the parliament of our union – must be permitted to debate the matter and make its views known. Democracy and accountability demand it.

We cannot allow a national strike campaign to be organised and controlled exclusively by a handful of senior officials sitting in a room and publishing the occasional circular or video. National strike campaigns always throw up a multitude of questions – around such things as strategy, tactics, aims, demands, messaging, materials, and so on – and delegates representing members across the country should have the opportunity to feed into that debate and submit their own proposals. A recall conference should be supplemented by mass meetings across the country at which local and national officials put themselves before members and field their questions.

The leadership has seen fit to recall annual conference for all sorts of reasons in past years, including to debate proposals to reorganise the union’s structures and reaffiliate to the Labour party. And during previous national strikes, several recalls of the union’s conference were held. There is therefore no legitimate reason to deny a recall conference now.

Furthermore, we need a clearly-defined pay claim which is supported by evidence, can be explained in straightforward terms and around which the membership can unite. At the moment, the claim is vague and ill-defined. The policy statement agreed at annual conference in May did not set out a clear monetary demand, and we are told that the subsequent letter to the employers simply demanded a “substantial” pay rise. That is no basis on which to launch a national strike ballot. Our objectives as a union need to be crystal clear from the outset, and members need to know what it is they will be striking for.

Above all, we need urgency, clarity and openness from senior FBU leaders in place of the usual sclerotic, unresponsive and centralised way of operating.

The impending campaign needs to be dynamic, professional and rooted in the consent of members and local officials at every stage.

Recall conference now!

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