It Will Be A Tragedy
If The Firefighters Are Crushed

By Polly Toynbee

The Guardian, November 27, 2002

Only one thing is certain about the firefighters strike: they will not win. Not a chance. Whatever the justice of their cause, that is a plain fact. Tony Blair is a man who knows one big truth: governments that lose control also lose power. Who's in charge here? That's the question that kept Labour out of office for all those years. He is so certain of this that he need not rant, threaten or smear the firefighters with accusations of sinister political motive. He wants to settle - green goddesses are not an emblem of good government - but he will only settle on his terms, however long the firefighters can stay out.

Not just the Fire Brigades Union but the whole union movement now faces this question, according to a top TUC figure: "Will we scramble out of this with some sort of deal - last Friday's plus a bit more productivity and modernisation? Or will it drag on and on until eventually the FBU is hammered? That would be a disaster for the TUC and bad for Labour too, with bitterness in every local party, loyalties torn." Few union leaders think the FBU will win or be seen to win - they just hope there is still time to escape humiliation. In public, the TUC general council brothers always stand shoulder to shoulder, but just beneath the surface there is a wide divergence of views.

The small but growing "awkward squad" of the Bob Crow variety will always be up for a fight, whoever, whenever, so their voice is predictable. (Though Crow might wonder why only six tube drivers failed to work on Monday and fewer yesterday, despite his urgings for them to come out on safety grounds.) But moderate and more experienced senior union voices urged Andy Gilchrist not to go for this strike: they could see exactly what lay ahead.

One leader calls Gilchrist less a leftist than "a gambler, an adventurer, the kind who gets into power and wonders what the union machine is for if you don't have a go". So he grasped the FBU steering wheel - but he is running out of road. Promised 40% and no change in working practices, no wonder his members all voted for it.

But from some of the mixed emails I've been receiving from firefighters, many are more appalled at being forced to change their working hours than pleased at getting more cash. Their leader never warned them of the dangerous box he was opening, especially for those who live far from work, some travelling from the south coast to London for their two days' and two nights' work, returning home for a second job or free time in a pleasant place. It is why 40 people apply for any vacancy. But modernisation is inevitable, with shift changes, gradual job losses and a less convenient life. Modernisation only makes savings if some of the 20% jobs soon freed up due to retirement are not replaced.

What other unions fear is that this will end in general humiliation. The sight of good people doing vital work, badly misled and forced to trail back to work defeated is not just tragic, but bad for all employees everywhere. The psychological impact puts a new Thatcherite spring into the step of managers with a taste for power.

A climate of agreement between equals risks being shattered: John Monks' personal brand of trade unionism made win-win deals between partners that respected one another's power, with long-term pay deals and no need for a trial of strength. One union leader fears that "managers will look workforces in the eye, especially in the public sector, and know that they are the masters now without even whispering the words: 'You want to do an FBU? Come and get me!'" Moral strength is best not tested, as police and nurses know.

On the government side, equally dangerous boxes have been prised open. Local government pay bargaining has been exposed as a chaotic fiction. Bulky joint committees of 40 people negotiate not just emergency services but every group of local workers, representing all 403 local authorities, large and small, rich and poor, Labour and Tory, imposing the same pay rates regardless. This combines the worst of local with the worst of national: since the government pays for 70% of it, "local" is only make-believe and they should take open control. The alternative is genuinely local, with local taxes, but councils rightly shudder at the thought of all 403 authorities negotiating pay for each profession every year.

Where head teachers and trust hospitals had the chance to set their own pay rates, they flinched from the effort and the internal strife it caused. Consider how train drivers after privatisation succeeded in leveraging huge pay rises by playing off companies against each other. Nurses and teachers would push up pay across boundaries in shortage areas. Both unions and councils are aghast at the thought. Yet national pay rates cause the overheated south-east to drive up pay demands for the rest of the country, while London weighting is still too low.

Far worse, this strike has opened the social justice box the government most fears: what is a worker worth and who decides? Almost everyone is probably paid too much or too little, without rhyme or reason. The genuine market explains only a small part of what people are paid and why. An MP earns more than 96% of the people: firefighters' emails boil with fury at their self-awarded 40% increase. (But shouldn't elected representatives score high on the scale?) Fat cat pay is obscene. What of consultants who voted down a 15% increase because modernisation reduces their lucrative private surgery? Leftwing union leaders hasten to declare the firefighters a "special case", disingenuously promising that a high FBU settlement would not be used to press the comparative claims of others. But almost all public sector workers are a special case, since all have fallen behind over the years.

Suggest a pay policy to the government and it turns green. If you create a rational ladder, everyone has a case for leap-frogging others: easier by far to see pay as an unjust force of nature and only agree increases above the going rate in exchange for reforms. Yet this question will return time and again.

Tomorrow, membership of a new local government pay commission will be announced, as agreed with the unions after last summer's one-day strike. It attempts what New Labour flees from, taking on the monumental task of deciding what council workers are worth - from lowly cleaner to top professional. It will be obliged to implement equal pay for work of equal value, ending the tradition that women's jobs are low paid because they are done by women.

Unison reports many recent successes: Gloucester council just settled at the tribunal door, giving trained nursery nurses equal pay with architectural assistants. When it comes to "special cases", the pay commission will have to set the firefighters somewhere fairly on their scale. Perhaps at last it will not be might that determines pay, so the lowest paid - 70% of them women - will get a fair share despite their lack of muscle.



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