Friday, October 22, 2010

Emergency! Cuts will put lives at risk.

Can Trades Union Councils reclaim historic role in coming struggles?

IT will be a busy day tomorrow. Around the country people will be out protesting and campaigning against the Con-Dem governments cuts, and attacks on jobs, rights and services. Here in London there's to be a march beginning at 11 am from the RMT union's headquarters in Chalton Street, and going to the TUC, and the Southern and Eastern Regions TUC (SERTUC) is cutting short its normal meeting to hold a rally in Congress House.

Before that however, London firefighters are walking out for an eight hour stoppage in protest at plans to impose new working hours on them, and this looks like just the first skirmish in a much bigger conflict. In the past, the government had army units on standby with old fire appliances to take the place of striking firefighters. But now a strikebreaking private company stands ready, albeit with ill-trained staff, to move in and use the regular fire brigades' own equipment.

The London Fire Brigade says it will respond to any emergency tomorrow, but meanwhile Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members are welcoming other trades unionists and members of the public to join them on picket lines, particularly at Ladbroke Grove and Euston Road fire stations, from which they are concerned that scabs may be operating.

Cuts that take away jobs can mean loss of lives

The FBU has warned that ten thousand fire service jobs are under threat from government plans to slash 25 per cent from fire and rescue service budgets over the next four years. Responding to the government Comprehensive Spending Review, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “This government seems intent on imposing cuts that will wreak havoc within the fire and rescue service and short change both the public and firefighters.

“These pernicious cuts must be fought to defend public safety. They are not inevitable, but politically driven. The FBU will oppose these draconian attacks on an essential frontline service and robustly defend the key role firefighters play in keeping communities safe.


The government says there are "bound to be winners and losers" from its plans. In the fire service it is not hard to see who is winning something. When London’s firefighters go on strike, the safety of Londoners will be in the hands of an international company whose chief executive officer, John Shannon, receives an annual bonus of £400,000 and salary of £300,000, largely paid for by London council tax payers.

“Last year the company, Assetco, made a £10.8 million increase in profits, again largely wrung from its biggest client, the London Fire Brigade” , Matt Wrack says. “Mr Shannon is far from their only fat cat. Many of the directors are on stunningly large salary and bonus packages, and also hold several other directorships.

“Assetco will deploy at most just 700 poorly trained employees to try to do the work of nearly 6,000 highly professional London firefighters” said Bro. Wrack. “In fact, they are understood informally to have just half that number. They are very secretive about who these employees are.

“Assetco’s temporary workforce have been secretly trained in Lincolnshire at a former RAF base. But the nature and length of that training is a closely guarded secret. We hear informally that it is just a few days. You cannot train a fully competent firefighter in a few days.

“They will operate from 27 locations, instead of London’s 113 fire stations, and they will use 27 fire engines instead of the normal 169.

“The London Fire Brigade is by far Assetco’s biggest customer, according to its website, “the business is built around a cornerstone 20-year operational asset management contract with the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) for London Fire Brigade.’ Its other clients are the Abu Dhabi government, the UAE government, and Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue.

“In February 2001 it secured a 20-year PFI contract to own and manage all London fire engines and equipment. London’s fire engines, which used to belong to Londoners, now belong to Assetco.

“In July 2009 AssetCo secured a 7-year contract, the first of its nature in the UK, to provide a 700 strong firefighter reserve capability to LFEPA. They and the LFEPA put about the myth that it was for emergencies like a pandemic illness or flooding, but its real purpose was as a strikebreaking force, designed to ensure that London firefighters were always negotiating at a disadvantage.

“The London Fire Brigade started the process of sacking all its firefighters, and intends to have their work done in a half-hearted and inadequate way, by a company whose top people have already grown rich at Londoners’ expense, just in order to avoid sitting down and negotiating shift patterns with the Fire Brigades Union. Nothing could be more irresponsible, and nothing could be more pig-headed” said Matt Wrack.

The union is not only warning the public of the danger, but making the point to employers - ultimately the public again, except for the politics in between. The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority has 17 members, eight of them nominated from the London Assembly, seven from the London boroughs, and two appointed by the Mayor.

Heading the Authority at present is notorious Tory Brian Coleman, or as he is nicknamed "Mr.Toad" from Barnet, linked with shedding services and enjoying generous expenses, and strongly criticised for among other things, his attitude to emergency services.

Link with trades union councils

Following on after the march and the SERTUC mobilising rally, members of the Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils (GLATUC) will be taking the stage at Congress House at 2pm to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the London Trades Council which preceded it. They won't just be looking back at history, but facing up to the struggles that are now opening up against this coalition government, and discussing what part trades union councils can play in them.

Nevertheless our history is important.

London Trades Council was set up from a Building Trades Conference, following the 1859 London builders' strike, which had shown the need for co-ordination between different trades. The strike had also brought the issue of workmen from one country being brought in to replace others on strike, and the need for solidarity not just at home but internationally. It's no coincidence that the London trades council was linked with the formation of the International Working Men's Association, also known as the First International. Although it did not affiliate, George Odger, of the Operative Bricklayers' Society was chair of the trades council and became president of the International, working with Karl Marx.

Founded in May 1860, the London Trades Council was not the first. Sheffield and Glasgow trades councils were founded in 1858, and Edinburgh in 1859. By 1868 it was possible to hold a national conference of trades councils in Manchester, and that was how the Trades Union Congress was formed. George Potter, one of the founders of the London Trades Council became chairman of the TUC. So it was the trades councils, including London, which preceded the TUC, though the latter is obviously now the more powerful body, and some union leaders seem undecided whether to treat the trades union councils (as they are now called) as poor relations, or no relation.

The London Trades Council supported such historical struggles as the Matchgirls', gas workers' and dockers' strikes in the 1880s, and went on, as did trades councils elsewhere, to support the campaign for an old age pension -another issue topical again. Around the country, trades councils became councils of action during the 1926 General Strike, organising picketing and help for people, and sometimes coming near to running towns. Even when not called upon to show such potential, local trades union councils have not struck to the humdrum or parochial. In London, Stepney trades council arranged the first public exhibition of Picasso's Guernica painting, using it to raise funds for Spanish republican refugees. Brent TUC as is well known, helped the heroic Grunwick strikers, but less well known, it organised the last public meeting at which Nelson Mandela spoke before returning to South Africa and arrest.

In 1949 and 1950 the Labour Home Secretary used the threat of marches by Oswald Mosley's fascists to ban all processions in London, in time to effect May Day. Here's the Times, May 8, 1950:

Hundreds of mounted and foot police assembled in the West End of London yesterday, prevented 'May Day' demonstrators from defying the Home Secretary's prohibition of political processions. Struggles between demonstrators and police occurred in various parts of the West End when thousands of people converged on Trafalgar Square for a rally called by the London Trades Council. Mounted police rode along roads and pavements, breaking up processions, and banners and placards with the legends 'Peace' and 'Stop the war in Malaya' were wrested from standard-bearers. Sixty-nine persons were charged last night and will appear in Court today.

The TUC broke up the London Trades Council to remove this "Communist" thorn in the side of Labour, but eventually London got a federation of local borough-based trades councils which today is GLATUC. With much of the industrial base on which trades councils like Brent or Barking rested gone, they may seem only a shadow of past strength, but as representatives of trade unionism in the community, they can take on a new life, providing a focus for struggles. In the current crisis and the face of the government's onslaught, trades union councils can provide a means not only to unite workers in different industries and services, but to unite the unemployed with those still working, unite public service providers with service users, most often the same class, and bring around young people facing an at best uncertain future.

Some union bureaucrats (no names, no packdrill, but you may have met them) are not too keen on working with people from other unions, let alone handing initiative to the lay rank and file. But for firefighters and health workers, as for postal and transport workers, though we understand that shifts may prevent you going to every meeting, you're always welcome to ask trades union councils for support. So the message is don't be strangers. Get your branch affiliated, and get stuck in

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