FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack with Croxteth Strikers
Six weeks ago, Merseyside firefighters overwhelmingly voted to strike against the cuts proposed by the Fire and Rescue Authority and demanded by the government.
Today marked the end of the initial eight days of strike action. Unlike in previous disputes, there was no military cover, since the Territorial Army are involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kazakhstan. On Wednesday, a Merseyside FBU press release announced that 'Merseyside fire crews are taking eight more days of strike action. The fire authority has been given the statutory notice of the start of strike action from 10.00 on 12 September until 10.00 on 20 September'.
The strike has been completely solid, with no FBU members crossing the picket line. However, a small number of former firefighters and office staff - who made their sympathy for the bosses apparent from the start - crossed the picket line and maintained a skeleton crew. Earlier this week, the strikebreakers made FBU claims of intimidation and sabotage against the strikers. Crucially, they chose to make these allegations public rather than go to the police.
This evening, a visibly tired Merseyside secretary Les Skarratts appeared on BBC's NorthWest Tonight to answer the strikebreakers' claims. As the normally bland and mild-mannered Gordon Burns turned angry inquisitor, Skarratts failed to land a verbal punch. The BBC's usual 'balance' triumphed once again, presenting a totally distorted picture. Viewers must have been left with the impression that it is the Authority who cares for the safety of the public, and not the firefighters.
In fact, the Fire Authority today published details of their cuts agenda. Though Chief Fire Officer Tony McGuirk claimed otherwise, they totally vindicated the FBU's decision to strike. £3.5 million will be cut by the Authority's budget, as demanded by the government. There will will be a large number of redundancies, although the Authority hope to negotiate the exact number and location of these with the FBU. There will also be one less fire engine for Liverpool city centre, two less than the FBU had previously claimed three would be lost.
Wherever the cuts are made, it is clear that the Authority still plans to make £3.5 million less available to fire and rescue on Merseyside and surrounding areas. This means that one million people wlll have a 'modernised' - ie worse - service.
Merseyside FBU is yet to make a formal statement on the proposals. But Skarratts has previously refused to make any absolute demands. So cuts are coming. The only question is precisely where the axe will fall, and how many times.
All trade unionists and anti-capitalists on Merseyside therefore have to step up to the plate and start putting all their theories into practice. We must recognise that it is the profit system that has demanded these cuts, and the profit system which has taken the Territorial Army off to the Middle East to fight for control of oil. With the big Manchester protest at the Labour Party conference coming up in sixteen days, we must use that media spotlight to highlight the link between wars abroad and cuts at home.
A good opportunity to make our voices heard will come on Friday 15th September, when a national rally organised the FBU will take place. The cuts in Merseyside are a taste of things to come nationwide, so every working class person in the country should support the Merseyside firefighters.