I was proud to represent the FBU. Now I want to reclaim it for the membership

iStock.com / Chalabala

by Dean Gillen, former FBU brigade chair for Nottinghamshire

CAMPAIGN FOR A DEMOCRATIC FBU is made up of individuals from around the country who are serving or out-of-trade members of the Fire Brigades Union. Some have held positions within the union.

We have come together to try and highlight some of the mismanagement and wrongdoing that is taking place. We believe this is genuinely blighting the good work and reputation of the FBU and negatively affecting members. We want to make the union more democratic and accountable.

I have been a member of the FBU for 18 years. I have been active as a branch rep, but also at a brigade level – attending annual conferences, representing the membership, taking part in residential training courses (including committing a year to an online TUC course), and attending union meetings at all levels. I have a good understanding of how the FBU works.

Please read what I write here and imagine that you are sat around the mess table having a brew and putting the world – or rather the FBU – to rights with your watch.

After nearly two decades of loyal membership, I sometimes feel like calling it a day, and I often hear from members who feel the same. I have worked hard for the union over the years, sometimes to the detriment of my own health and well-being.

As a committed FBU member and rep, I have spent time away from my young family, suffered the stress of running a picket line, had late nights reading reams of policies and files, and so on. I could go on.

I tell you this to highlight just how much it genuinely saddens me that I could ever get to a stage where I would consider leaving the FBU.

The main reasons are that I don’t trust the current leadership, and I don’t like where the FBU is heading. I no longer feel that it represents me as an ordinary member. Too often the leadership uses our union to serve its own political agenda. There should be much more focus on pay and conditions.

Regular readers of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU blog will understand why I don’t trust the current leadership, but I’ll give you a quick recap. First, the witch-hunt of executive council member Paul Embery, which resulted in an unfair dismissal ruling against the union and cost members a huge amount of money (thousands spent on the investigation process, a recall of annual conference to hear Paul’s appeal, the hiring of a leading QC at the employment tribunal, probable costly compensation, and so on). And for what benefit? The loss of an honest and dedicated official, and a load of negative publicity across the media. Sadly, it’s the membership who lose out.

The general secretary gains from witch-hunts like this as it means that dissenting voices are removed from the upper echelons of the FBU. We have learned recently that another dissenting voice – the executive council member for Scotland – has been suspended. This is really troubling.

Another concerning issue is the lack of access to the financial accounts, and the attempts by the leadership to prevent members reading minutes of executive council meetings. This cements the lack of trust.

So when we hear of money being spent unscrupulously on things like expensive exercise bikes for the personal use of senior officials, and we learn that hardworking employees of the union have quietly disappeared after receiving ‘hush money’ payments, we are entitled to ask searching questions.

For me, and I’m sure for many other members, the lack of transparency is a real and growing concern.

So, what am I getting at?

Growing up my dad would always say, ‘You’ve got no right complaining if you’re not willing to do anything about it yourself.’

Which really sums up why I joined the FBU, served as a rep, and why I am now a member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee. I am trying to make a difference for the better.

Although I sometimes feel like leaving the FBU and saving £30 a month, I’d rather stand and fight, so that’s what I intend to do. But we need more members to do the same. Please ask the tough questions at branch and brigade committee meetings. Please demand to see the financial accounts and minutes of executive council meetings. And please don’t be afraid to hold your officials to account when you disagree with them or when they do wrong. All watches should agree to do one thing each. It shouldn’t be a burden. Many hands make light work.

Although I understand the frustration of many members, we shouldn’t leave the union. We need to unite and fight! Get involved and make the FBU leadership and officials accountable to their members again. It should work bottom-up, not top-down.

With impeccable timing, the union’s Firefighter magazine has just dropped through my letter box. I’ll get a brew and flick straight to the back to see I recognise anyone. Don’t scoff at me; you know that’s exactly what you do, too!