Britain - The firefighters' strike - the "new generation" of trade-union leaders put to the test

Jan/Feb 2003

When the firefighters took national strike action over a 40% wage claim in November 2002, there was all kinds of speculation about a "new wave of trade union militancy". The different public sector unions had been staging one-day strikes since the Spring over wages, with some of these days of action carrying on right into November, thus coinciding with the first two stoppages of the firefighters.

The press (both left and right) spoke of a winter, or maybe a spring or summer "of discontent", even harking back to the last big series of public sector strikes which had, coincidentally, been pre-faced by the only previous national firefighters' strike, 25 years ago, in 1977.

Was the context not similar, after all? Had these strikes, which at the time also affected the private sector, not also been against a wage freeze policy? The fact that the industrial action of the late 1970s, which carried on until the winter of 1979, also took place under a Labour government (and has often been blamed for the 18 years that Labour spent in opposition), generated much speculation. Would Blair have learned from history and understood what he had now to do, asked the Financial Times on the 19th November? "Just as Margaret Thatcher's stand against the miners destroyed militancy for a generation, a firm stand against the firefighters is essential to fend off an explosion in public sector pay". And of course, this possibility of a contagious spread of pay demands was certainly what determined Blair's "tough" response against the firefighters, leading precisely to accusations against him that he was "doing a Thatcher" on public sector workers.

A new phenomenon?

For the media, the explanation for this apparent "new militancy" was simple. A "new generation" of trade union leaders was now at the helm of a number of unions and they were seeking a confrontation after five years of a Labour government which had been side-lining their machineries, despite their loyalty to Labour over the past so many years.

The media were talking about the "new men", some from a much younger generation, who, over the past two years, have taken over the leadership of both rail unions, the RMT (Bob Crow) and ASLEF (Mick Rix), the civil service union PCS (Mark Serwotka) and the Communication Workers Union (Billy Hayes). They also then included the new leader of the merged Amicus (comprising the AEEU, MSF and others), Derek Simpson and the new deputy general secretary of the Transport union T&G, Tony Woodley.

The leader of the Fire Brigades Union, Andy Gilchrist who took over from Ken Cameron, a former Communist Party member and known Labour left-winger, who led the FBU for the previous 20 years, was really only added to the media's "awkward squad" - as they dubbed them - when the firefighters' dispute began.

In most cases, these individuals were elected on the basis of campaigns which tapped into the long-simmering discontent among the membership over worsening wages and conditions and a union leadership which only spoke about "partnership" with the bosses and made concession after concession. Their election manifestos spoke about taking unions back to their members, rebuilding local structures which had been dismantled, ensuring real "democracy", etc. They were also outspoken in their criticisms of government policy, in particular with respect to privatisation, PFI, or PPP in the case of the London Underground. Moreover, Derek Simpson, for instance, let it be known that he was opposed to "sweetheart", single union deals, promising to tear them up "if members vote against them". In the case of the AEEU's Derek Simpson and PCS's Mark Serwotka, there were even battles within the union machinery to try to invalidate their election - with the old engineers' leader, "Sir" Ken Jackson refusing to go quietly and Barry Reamsbottom of the civil service union waging a protracted court challenge against Serwotka, which he finally lost.

Of course, these new leaders were aware of Blair's general unpopularity among ordinary members and activists. So it was a point in their favour when they issued public statements against "new" Labour, although they would usually not go further than invoking the past - i.e. "old" Labour. The FBU's Andy Gilchrist was perhaps the first to be accused of attempting to "overthrow the government" (!), however, when he provoked the Observer headline on 1 December "Fire union chief pledges to topple New Labour", by saying "I'm quite prepared to replace New Labour with what I'm prepared to call Real Labour", at a firefighters' rally in Manchester. This was just after the conclusion of the first 8-day strike period in the FBU dispute over pay, when there was all kinds of hype over an "intensified" dispute and strikes which could go on for months. Though in fact the agreement to call off further strikes and go to arbitration at Acas followed in just 24 hours.

Gilchrist and the others remain members of the Labour party and deny they are really attacking it, claiming they only offer "constructive criticism". In fact at the start of the firefighters' pay dispute, Gilchrist issued a press statement complaining of press misrepresentation, which reaffirmed the union's affiliation to the Labour Party and added that it had not, contrary to media reports, cut its funding to the Party.

Bob Crow of the RMT who is associated with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party is in fact the only non-Labour Party member among the "awkward squad". Mick Rix, who joined the SLP for a time, rejoined the Labour Party on being elected to ASLEF's leadership in 2000.

Of course, many workers who are union members do not take this new bunch of leaders at face value - nor do they necessarily believe everything they say. Why should they, given that union leaders, whether considered left or right-wing, have, over the past decade or more, offered nothing new - certainly not a fight back - using excuses such as the anti-trade union laws? For many workers, the union leaders are seen merely as highly-paid poachers turned gamekeepers, who are not very different from politicians. Nor do the majority even vote in leadership elections. For the FBU leadership less than half the membership voted (45%) - but that was an "excellent" turnout compared with the 25.4% turnout for the Amicus AEEU election which was finally won by Derek Simpson or the T&G deputy leadership election where the turnout was 18%!

It was with great cynicism for example, that car workers at Ford Dagenham read the election manifesto of Tony Woodley and his rival Peter Booth. Woodley had, as far as they were concerned helped to sabotage any possible strike action against the closure of the Body and Assembly operations, in 2001, by delaying a ballot time and again. His manifesto began "Tony Woodley - the man who led the fight to save Rover says..." but naturally, failed to admit that he had presided over 40,000 job cuts in the car industry as a whole, as the chief T&G negotiator for this industry. On the other hand they knew nothing about Booth. So who was there to vote for?

However, the fact is that an image is certainly being projected both by the union leaders and the media, which stokes the illusion that at last this "new generation" may carry the promise of some form of fight back against Blair's government and the bosses - and after all, a struggle is overdue. The FBU's provocative 40% pay demand and the fact that firefighters have actually taken strike action, may well serve to fuel this idea. But the union machineries have their own reasons to want to strengthen their hand, which does not mean that they want to go so far as organising a real fight back - that is, one which amounts to a determined confrontation with the aim of regaining the ground lost in the past 25 years. Because such a fight back would require a generalised, co-ordinated and united movement of the working class.

This is why the firefighters' dispute provides a good illustration of the problems faced by workers who are fed up with the years of compromise. What appears on the surface to be a determined, albeit sectional fight, for a provocative pay demand - i.e. the 40% increase - is currently proving itself to be yet another stage- managed affair in which the strikers themselves have had little say.

It goes back 25 years

In fact the origin of the present firefighters' pay dispute just happens to go back 25 years, almost exactly, because that was the last time there was a national firefighters' strike and it is the pay formula which they won back in 1977, which is the bone of contention today.

Towards the end of that year, the FBU staged a 9-week strike over pay. They won a substantial rise and a new pay formula was instituted which linked their wages to those of industrial manual workers. This pay formula has remained in place ever since and this year, according to its indices, their pay rise would have been 4%.

However for some time there has been discontent over the relative fall in firefighters' and operation room workers' wages, compared to workers in skilled professions, who, the FBU argues, would provide a far more appropriate comparison than industrial manual workers. After all, over the past 25 years, it is argued, the fire service has become a sophisticated service which does far more than just put out fires and moreover, what is expected of a firefighter has changed accordingly. However, this has not been acknowledged by the bosses - neither, of course, in the make-up of the fire service which among other things still relies on part- time firefighters (so-called "retained" and non- uniformed firefighters, who comprise 35% of the force), nor in the remuneration received for this risky and technically skilled job.

Today a qualified firefighter is on a wage of £21,531 per year for a 41.9 hour week. A fire control operator has been getting £19,877. But even at this rate of pay, which is above the average in the public sector as a whole, many of these workers end up with a net pay low enough to qualify for working family tax credit. What brings their pay down further is their pension contributions which are above average, at 11% of their gross earnings, representing a deduction of around £197 per month. The FBU argues therefore, that by today's standards, their work is "undervalued", hence the "Y...? Because we're worth it!" campaign slogan.

It cites police pay for comparison. The top scale for a constable is £29,062 for a 40 hour week. The pay of train drivers, whose top salary (on GNER) is £32,000 for a 35 hour week is another example cited.

The union has produced lengthy documents to justify the 40% pay demand (50% for emergency control operators), based on firefighters' "efficiency". To this end it has employed various consultants and research bodies - as well as referring back to two reviews, both commissioned by the government itself, but which both drew rather "unwelcome" conclusions about the fire service and therefore have been buried.

One of these reviews dealt with "standards of emergency cover" and proposed to change the focus of the fire service from the protection of property, to focus primarily on the ability to "save life"! This review's initial findings, in the Spring of 2002, advised that a £1.6bn additional investment in the fire service and a doubling of size of 85% of fire brigades would be needed for this "change of focus". Part of this objective was to be achieved by doing preventive work in communities with a higher record of fires - obviously mostly very poor neighbourhoods. It was reckoned that 70 more lives per year could be saved in this way. The final report was expected in Autumn 2002. However it seems to have disappeared into thin air. The second review appeared in the form of a draft White Paper in June 2001. It provided for legislation to reflect the changing role of the fire service and "modernise" it. This paper was also left unpublished, since, among other things, it had actually praised the fire service for its efficiency and "value for money".

Both these documents have been resurrected by the FBU in order to provide additional back-up for their claim and to form the backbone for their own proposals for "modernisation"(called "Trust the Professionals!").

Ironically one of the FBU's arguments is that firefighters' "productivity" (whatever this may mean for life-saving workers), according to the government's own figures, has increased by 55% in the last 10 years, compared with 19.5% increase in the economy as a whole. Not surprising, since fire brigades have been operating with 2.5% fewer full-time firefighters compared to ten years ago and indeed, 1,181 fewer firefighters are in service today than the number which by law is the minimum required for "emergency purposes".

Yet the FBU buys right into the idea that modernisation should mean savings, more or less boasting that their "modernisation" as opposed to that proposed now by the government would save over £3bn per year! The savings would accumulate because they would move to more preventive work in communities thus tackling arson and hoax calls, thus saving time and money, therefore. Which is fair enough, of course. But using the same argument the bosses could cut even more jobs.

Y 30K became 25K with strings

The "30K" campaign was, without doubt, very well prepared. It began in March when the FBU gave notice to the employers that they were going to be asking for a substantial pay rise this year. In April the £30,000 per annum figure was announced. At the FBU's annual conference in May, a resolution was passed unanimously to ballot for strike action if the £30,000 claim had not been met by their national pay date, the 7 November.

On May 28th 2002, the demand was formally presented to their local authority employers - the "National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire Brigades".

With the first negotiations due for 12 June in London, on the day before, 12,000 firefighters came from all over the country to march to Trafalgar Square where a rally in support of the claim was held. Meanwhile mass meetings of firefighters took place up and down the country to build the pay campaign. On the 22 July, 5,000 firefighters marched through Glasgow to rally in George Square.

Four meetings between the union and the employers took place, in June/July but the employers refused to put a figure on a pay increase. However, at the final formal meeting on the 23 July 4% seemed to be the "final offer"in line with the old pay formula, but at this point no explicit conditions were attached. This result may have been a foregone conclusion, given the local authorities' usual cost-cutting. However it was also provocative. And indeed what later emerged, confirmed that behind the scenes the fire bosses (and the government) had a fundamental "reform" of the fire service on their agenda - which was to involve radical cuts.

On 5 September, after last ditch talks had broken down, the government officially announced that it was commissioning an "independent" report into the fire service to be conducted by Professor "Sir" George Bain, a high- ranking academic whose "independent" views on working class conditions were illustrated by the poverty level at which he set the minimum wage when he chaired the Low Pay Commission between 1997 and 2002. Bain was to be helped by this year's TUC President and ex-deputy general secretary of the CWU, "Sir" Anthony Young. The third member of this team was another knight of the realm, "Sir" Michael Lyons, who had been chief bureaucrat of a number of county councils before settling into several company directorships as well as an academic post at Birmingham University. These backgrounds speak for themselves as to the "independence" of this body. Indeed those fire brigades initially approached by Bain refused to talk to him, for good reason.

Bain's final recommendations were meant to be made within 12 weeks. This in fact coincided with the date by which the FBU had undertaken to call strike action if its demands had not been met. Indeed, this whole charade was clearly a delaying tactic on the part of the employers and the government. However, as it transpired, it was also used as a means to delay industrial action by the FBU leaders.

On 12 September, a recall conference of the FBU decided to ballot for strike action. Soon the big "Y.. 30K" campaign logo was becoming a familiar sight. Most fire stations were adorned with large banners advertising the demand, campaign stickers were being pasted everywhere and flags mounted on fire engines.

This campaign was met with much public sympathy, and the argument by firefighters that they had a special status as life- savers who took grave risks for the sake of public safety, went down well, especially in the context of the first anniversary of 11 September.

But there were obvious problems, which might have detracted from this sympathy. Local government workers had been taking strike action for some time, over extremely low pay (many are on less than £10,000 per annum) - a context in which the firefighters' £30K pay demand could have been seen as somewhat outrageous. Of course this was indeed the case among some workers, but most seemed to feel in solidarity with the demand for a pay rise as well as with the proposed strike, as an opinion poll by MORI, commissioned by the FBU in late September, found. At that point, 71% of the public supported their campaign for more pay, including 63% of low paid workers who said that firefighters were paid too little. 47% of all those questioned said they would support a strike over pay.

On the day before the strike ballot result was due to be announced, John Prescott, deputy prime minister, made a public statement condemning the firefighters' refusal to co-operate with the Bain review, and condemning their prospective strike, calling their 40% claim "fantasy" "at a time when pay settlements were running at around 3%". It would, according to him, "damage" the economy, have knock-on effects on public pay and the government just couldn't afford it... Gordon Brown's pre-budget speech made the same point, calling this rise "inflationary" and Eddie George of the Bank of England echoed this, the same week. This theme was to repeated time and again by government spokesmen and Blair himself, during the course of the dispute.

The government had already been mobilising soldiers from the army, navy and air force since August - to man the 50-year old army fire engines - so-called "Green Goddesses" and act as emergency cover in the event of a strike. This was met with a barrage of ridicule from all quarters, of course, since these old trucks go half the speed of modern fire engines, cannot pump water above the second floor of a building, have very short ladders etc., etc. Not to mention the fact that most of the 19,000 soldiers involved would not have had any experience dealing with fires.

But public sympathy with the firefighters continued to grow. In fact even John Monks accused Blair of being "unhelpful" in referring to Andy Gilchrist as a "Scargillite".

On the 18 October the strike ballot result was announced. The turnout was high - 83.5% of the 52,000 membership. 87.6% voted to strike. The leadership then set strike dates. The first stoppages were planned for the 29th October and the 2 November and were to last 48 hours. Then four 8-day stoppages were to follow, on 6 November, 22 November, 4 December and 16 December.

However, by the 26th October, the FBU leadership had decided to suspend both 48-hour strikes. Suddenly more talks were convened with the employers, apparently insisted upon by the government - at this late hour - in an attempt to avert the strikes.

But at this point, the FBU leadership emphasised only their refusal to co-operate with the "sham" Bain enquiry, making this the focus of their angry rhetoric. Of course via various statements and "leaks" it was made clear that Bain was going to make any pay rise conditional on cuts and that there would be not much more on offer on pay than the 4% originally offered. This naturally upped the ante, but perhaps also served to dampen expectations.

However the firefighters themselves had been gearing up for action and as a result, activists and union representatives from all over the country (and Northern Ireland) expressed their discontent with the strike suspensions, in their own regional and local meetings. As far as they were concerned the 8-day strike planned for the 6th November was still on, as long as the claim was not met in full, on a no-strings-attached basis. In fact on the 4 November all the FBU's Regional Committees had convened mass meetings and organised votes over the next strike - meant to take place in just 2 day's time. They all voted against suspending it. But over the weekend, the FBU leaders had sent round a circular explaining that "considerable progress" was being made in the negotiations. What had in fact been "conceded" by this time was very little: that firefighters should be considered "associated, professional and technical workers", rather than manual workers; that pay equality should be granted to retained firemen; that control room operators should get a greater increase in pay.

By the 6 November, without consulting the membership first, the FBU executive had called off the first 8-day strike into the bargain, to give more time for these "constructive talks". This provoked even more of a reaction from activists as well as ordinary firefighters who felt that they were rapidly losing momentum in their campaign and taking the pressure off the employers and government just when it was needed most. Some argued that the strike should go ahead unofficially, but in the end "discipline" was kept and firefighters showed up for work.

On the 11 November, the Bain Review published its preliminary findings. It recommended an 11% increase over 2 years linked to changes in working practice - the latest version of "modernisation". It was the proposal to cut the number of firefighters on night shift which caused the most anger, since it is during the early hours of the morning that the largest number of deaths and casualties from fire occur. What is more, Bain's "modernisation" implied more pressure on firefighters to work overtime, instead of improving working conditions by cutting hours! Ludicrous proposals such as getting firefighters to train as paramedics (clearly paving the way for cuts in the ambulance service) were also included.

Gilchrist responded this time by calling an unscheduled 48-hour strike from the 13 November. Finally the firefighters were taking the industrial action they had been preparing for so long, with 24- hour pickets mounted outside fire stations for the first time in 25 years.

A substantial number of London Underground workers refused to operate trains during the strike using the valid argument that fire cover in the event of tunnel fires could not be provided by the army, leading to threats of discipline. Bob Crow of the RMT had announced that the RMT backed the firefighters 110% - but added, addressing the FBU, "this is a dispute that your members can and will win". Presumably on their own? However he also quickly organised a ballot among Underground staff to pre-empt further unofficial action by workers during fire strikes.

Public support in fact increased according to a Guardian poll on 19 November - after the first stoppage - which showed that 53% of people backed strike action.

Since the Green Goddesses had been the object of such ridicule the government now announced that in the event of a further strike, troops might be asked to requisition the Brigade's fire engines. However while talking tough about the more rigorous use of the troops, Prescott was intimating that there may be more money on the table - as an exceptional circumstance. But Gilchrist was also backpedalling further. A day after the 48-hour strike ended, on 15 November, he told a rally in Wales "If they had offered £25,000, - even with strings - we would not be in the position we are in now".

The next stoppage was due for the 22 November, and the government was intervening directly in the dispute. The £25,000 figure now seemed to be the compromise Gilchrist was prepared to discuss and he and the employers reopened talks on this basis. By Friday 22 November a draft deal was agreed between FBU representatives and the employers. This was for a 4% pay increase, backdated to 7 November, with two further rises in April 2003 and November 2003 of 3.5%, under a new pay formula and linked to modernisation. Gilchrist was now prepared to accept this very reduced offer amounting to 16% over two years with plenty of strings attached. And without prior consultation of his members, he would have called off the planned 8-day strike.

However, John Prescott chose this very moment to make what was possibly a very tortuous tactical move or, more likely, one of the biggest "faux pas" of his career. The deal which had been thrashed out between the FBU leadership and the employers over Friday night was concluded within 90 minutes of the start of the scheduled 8-day strike. Prescott, who had insisted on his right to veto it, refused to look at it (he was apparently still in bed), later claiming it had not been properly costed! Whether this was an attempt by Prescott to call what he thought to be Gilchrist's bluff, to test the firefighters' determination, or simply an arrogant "slip" on his part, remains an open question. In any case the FBU leader felt he had no choice but to allow the strike to go ahead. And just like the first strike, it was rock solid.

The embarrassment of the government may have been real, but this did not prevent Blair from holding news conferences where he said that there was no way that the government would give in to the firefighters' claim, and reiterating that "modernisation" was the "only way forward".

By the time this strike concluded, more negotiations were underway. But by now Prescott had inadvertently let it be known that part of the modernisation plan was to institute 11,000 job cuts!

On the 2 December, however, the executive of the union decided to suspend the next strike due to begin on the 4th December and take part in "exploratory" talks with the conciliation service, Acas. In fact behind the scenes, the TUC's John Monks had been acting go-between - he had also been a participant in the talks prior to the 8-day strike. Gilchrist now caved in: "We want to negotiate and discuss a resolution to the pay dispute in the fire service... This just gives us the glimmer of a hope of doing that." This was in the context of glowing praise by the government for the successful emergency cover by the army and the assertion that "joint control" centres staffed by the army and police had now been given a "trial run" and worked well - another one of Bain's proposals.

Nevertheless, even though throughout the two stoppages, there had been no sign of weakness of the strikers on the ground, the FBU executive led by Andy Gilchrist in effect now suspended the dispute itself.

Despite this, a national demonstration called by the TUC on the 7 December brought huge numbers of firefighters and other workers to London in support of their fight. It was the largest demonstration led by the unions that had been seen since the 1991 demonstration against the coal pit closures. At this point it would have been unwise for Gilchrist, who was being hailed as a hero still by many activists, to have called off the final strike scheduled in the run up to Christmas for the 16th December.

This he did, however, on the 11 December, before entering face to face talks with employers, under the supervision of Acas. And while the rejection of the Bain report stands, it is clear that Gilchrist is prepared to accept similar proposals directly from the employers themselves and that 16% (over two years) plus some "modernisation" now seems to be the deal he is prepared to settle for - or maybe even worse. To save face for the time being he has announced two new strike dates - 28 January and 1 February both for 48 hours. At the time of writing, such is the state of play as talks are about to resume on 6 January.

Workers need to take control of their own fights

It is still too early, of course, to say what the outcome of this dispute will be. But one thing is certain - everything has been done to dampen the expectations it had created among workers in general and firefighters in particular. And this was deliberate.

On the part of the government, this was predictable of course. Blair was worried about a likely snowball effect among other public service sections, should the firefighters win a quick victory. In this respect, portraying the case of firefighters as a "special case", as part of the media has consistently done in order to be able to tune in to the public's sympathy for the strikers while sticking to its usual opposition to strikes, could not be of much help to Blair. After all, hundreds of thousands of NHS hospital workers could argue that they are "vital" public workers, just as much as firefighters, and so could ambulance workers. But so could hundreds of thousands of teachers, after the deafening noises made by Blair about the importance of education. And what about workers providing various forms of care to the elderly, the disabled or to pre-school children?

How long would it have taken for millions of workers to consider their cases as "special" as well, should they be encouraged to do so by a prompt success in the firefighters' dispute? When a snowball begins to build up to a certain size, the factors which gave it its initial shape soon become irrelevant. What matters only is its growing size. Likewise for the class struggle. Once a movement has gathered a certain momentum, what motivates people into joining it is no longer what started it, but how big and determined it appears. And in case of a success for the firefighters', there was a possibility that due to the increasingly thin borderline between the public and private sectors (thanks to the PFI/PPP plans that Blair has been promoting so enthusiastically) the contagion would spread to private companies too. In which case, the stakes were no longer just Brown's financial "prudence", but the City's profits.

Besides, after so many years without any gains won by the working class through the class struggle (or any other means, of course), the risk of contagion was even more acute.

All these considerations had to be at the forefront of the government's reasoning and behind every one of its moves. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, it had to drive home two ideas. First, that winning anything through direct action is a painful and protracted process, hence the farce of these on-going negotiations since last July and the government's constant interference - directly, through Acas, or by any other means - to slow down the process. Second, that an apparent success has always to be paid for through a more or less concealed but real setback. Hence today's leitmotiv that any significant improvement in pay must be traded against some form of "modernisation" - a word which, in this government's jargon does not mean an improvement, as any good dictionary indicates, but a worsening of working conditions!

Of course, such tactics can only work as long as the government is not faced with a movement armed with a policy aimed at calling its bluff. In the present dispute such a policy should involve making the best of the huge current of sympathy and expectations that exist in most workplaces across the country and, above all, addressing the general discontent which prevails among all sections of workers. Whether it was or is still possible for the firefighters' dispute to spread to other sections is not even the issue. The point is to have a language and a programme of action addressed to these sections in such a way that the government thinks it has more reason to fear a snowball effect if the dispute is allowed to go on for a long time, than if it is settled rapidly. In other words, to make the government think twice about interfering, with delaying tactics, for instance, for fear of spreading the fight further.

The success of the London march on 7 December was an indication of the potential response to such a policy. Except that this march was designed by the union leaders - FBU included - as a celebration of their own glory and a safety valve to allow some steam to go out of the firefighters' militancy, rather than the starting point of a real offensive aimed at drawing workers into action and calling the government's bluff.

Instead, the weakness of the firefighters' dispute so far, or rather of its leadership, is that FBU leaders have repeatedly proved all too willing to go along with the agenda set by Blair. Their sectionalism, their insistence that firefighters are more "deserving" because of their higher "productivity", their "modernisation" proposals, their willingness to allow negotiations to drag along behind the scenes, even when there is nothing to negotiate - all this has played into the hands of the government.

More importantly still, the FBU leaders' repeated cancellation of planned action has disorientated workers. The leaders' disregard for the opinions expressed by local mass meetings, because as chief negotiators they believe they "know better" than the membership, has been demoralising for workers and demobilising. Not to mention the disciplining of branch officers, as in Manchester, for the "crime" of voicing public disagreement with the leadership's unilateral cancellation of an 8- day strike - something which can only drive members into passivity and/or cynicism.

Loud mouths and bold words are the preserve of politicians, in the trade unions as much as in parliamentary politics. But when it comes to the class struggle, something else is needed - leaders who are willing to submit themselves to the control of the working class by helping workers to organise their own democratic bodies to control their own struggles. The bureaucratic machineries of the unions have never been designed to provide this. On the contrary, they have always been a cushion designed to protect the leadership and its policy-making from the rank-and-file, particularly during period of acute militancy.

Gilchrist, Bob Crow and today's other "new" trade- union leaders may use bold words in order to get elected by a discontented membership; they may even prove to be good organisers when it comes to building up a dispute, as the firefighters' build up has shown, but when it comes to the crunch, they must be judged by their deeds, not on their words. And for the workers concerned, developing their own means to control their struggles directly is a necessary insurance policy against the bureaucratic and accommodating policies of union leaders who often turn out to be as scared of the class struggle as the bosses themselves, as has been the case in the firefighters' dispute over the past months. But this dispute may not be over yet. There is still time for those who have spent so many hours stuck on the picket lines, watching passers-by, instead of organising their dispute and reaching out to other sections of workers, to draw the lessons of the past months.

2 January 2003