The Fire Brigades Union is currently squaring up to the government in a dispute over pensions and pay. Fire fighters have now been on strike three times, most recently on the morning of Monday 4th November when a two-hour walk-out took place across England and Wales. The action has been reported in the mainstream press as retaliation for the government’s decision to raise the retirement age for firefighters from 55 to 60, but the action is also in response to the lumps of funding being gouged out of the fire service.
Most recently there have been reports of cuts to Cumbria’s fire service which could involve the closure of a retained fire station as well as the loss of six fire engines and 40 retained firefighters. The effects of this are obvious; people may die because of these cuts. What’s more is that Cumbria County Council’s announcement is only the latest event in a frightening situation developing nationwide. In London it’s predicted that 500 firefighters will lose their jobs and ten fire stations will be shut down. The same thing is being heard from West and South Yorkshire, Merseyside, Manchester and other parts of the country.
On top of this firefighters have been told that they will have to work until the age of 60. The threat of having to work for too long only to be given the sack and denied a proper pension has become very real.
FBU has announced plans for further strike action on Wednesday 13th November. A further ballot for other forms of industrial action has been announced and will close on Wednesday 4th December. In a press statement, FBU Gen Sec Matt Wrack said, “Although we still hope the government returns to negotiations, our members have told us that they are prepared for a long, hard campaign if necessary.” This is encouraging as the union and its members’ perseverance will be vital for the firefighters to win.
The Communication Workers Union also had plans to take strike action but after coming to an agreement with Royal Mail the union has postponed the planned strike. The negotiations have resulted in a deal that extends the original three year offer made by Royal Mail, however the details of what is being offered are still unclear.
These concessions are not a victory for the postal workers. Thanks to government changes to the Transfer of Undertakings and Protection of Employment (TUPE), Royal Mail has the flexibility to cut pay and conditions for the workers. Because the company has just transferred from public to private sector, it has the ability to re-negotiate changes one year after agreement. Essentially, this means that whatever deal Royal Mail makes with CWU, they are only legally obliged to stick to it for one year. Even if it does stick to the deal, once it runs out there will be no legal challenge available to the CWU. After the agreement, the company can sign workers up to inferior or even zero-hour contracts.
Now that Royal Mail is a privatised company, its sole purpose is to provide the biggest profits possible for its shareholders. Its interests are conflicted with the workers and it will reclaim the concessions at the first possible opportunity. The postal workers voted against privatisation and for strike action. It is vital that they continue the fight until their full demands are met.
It is not coincidence that the fire service is being cut and Royal Mail is being privatised at the same time as university courses are being cut and student debt is being privatised. Capitalism is in crisis and can no longer afford fire, postal and education services. The public money that used to be spent on these things is now privately owned, and invested only in what is profitable rather than what is needed.
Marxists understand that the FBU and CWU disputes are part of the same struggle. We also understand that these industrial struggles are linked to our struggle as Marxist students. Both students and workers are being made to pay for a crisis that they didn’t cause; the crisis of capitalism.
Industrial action has the power to win concessions but capitalism in crisis doesn’t have the power to grant them – proved by the threats of the CWU and the resulting mirage of concessions.The violent cuts by bosses and Ministers must be met with a united force of students and workers calling for a socialist transformation of society. This is what the ruling class fears most because this is how workers and students will change society for the better. This is the movement that we have to build.
by Ed Taylor