Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary

We need sustainable change for firefighters, the public we serve, and workers the world over

Firefighters from every part of the country will gather in Blackpool this week for our annual conference. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is a democratic union and our Conference is the parliament of our democracy

Last year, we celebrated the centenary of the FBU, a chance to reflect on 100 years of progress. As we commence our 101st year and 92nd annual conference, we look to the future and how we can bring lasting, sustainable change for firefighters, for the public we serve, and for workers the world over.

The FBU serves as the only professional voice of firefighters and the fire and rescue service in the UK – a responsibility we take seriously. Our democratic structures empower members to fight for fairer pay and conditions, but also to improve public safety and ultimately save lives.

We are a platform for firefighters to stand in solidarity with causes across the world, from those firefighting in warzones to firefighters facing prison for saving drowning refugees in the Mediterranean. The far-right’s politics of fear and hatred knows no borders – so neither can the solidarity of our resistance.

No one in the labour movement believed Theresa May’s declaration last year austerity was “over”. Fire and rescue services have had their funding from central government cut by 15% since 2016/17. Communities across the country are having fire cover slashed at night, and are facing unsafe crewing levels in emergency situations.

Firefighters have had new duties that fall outside of their contract piled on them by local brigade, while pay has been cut in real terms over the last decade. After months of negotiations, employers asked firefighters to enter into an open-ended contract, which would enable this practice, offering only a small pay rise over three years in return. Firefighters overwhelmingly rejected that proposal.

It is true that firefighting is now about far more than just fires. Firefighters now have a statutory duty to respond to flooding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As Climate Change makes this threat more prominent, it’s crucial that England follow suit, a cause for which we have long campaigned.

However firefighters are workers and, like all workers, deserve to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, negotiated collectively by their union. Their work deserves to be fairly compensated – and fair compensation for risking one’s life would be reversing the real-terms pay cut firefighters have experienced.

In June 2017, London experienced its worst loss of life since the blitz, when 72 people tragically lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Two years on, the government has done precious little to prevent a similar fire and next to nothing to prepare firefighters for one.

Our conference will reflect on the lessons of that night and what steps the government must take to ensure such a tragedy never happens again. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we called for an immediate halt to cuts to fire and rescue service. That call fell on deaf ears.

Firefighters are suffocating under Tory rule. As are our brothers and sisters across the labour movement. Change is on the horizon – real tangible change in the form of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. But delivering that change will be no easy task – and we cannot take that change as a given.

The next Labour government must not be like those before. The Blair and Brown governments decimated post-war fire and rescue service structures and abolished national standards for fire. They froze out the unions and did nothing to repeal decades of anti-trade union laws.

We need an end to relentless cuts and the beginning of an age of investment in our public services. For firefighters, that first and foremost means investing in a publically owned fire and rescue service with safer numbers of front-line firefighters, the re-building of national accountability structures for fire, and supporting a safer housing and construction sector with fully trained fire safety officers.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, pledged that Labour will repeal the punitive 2016 Trade Union Act. While that is an important and necessary step, 2016 was the culmination of decades of government antagonism to unions, not the beginning.

A Labour government needs to support and build the labour movement. That means tackling the decades of anti-union legislation we suffer under. Nearly thirty years after her resignation, Thatcher-era union-busting laws remain in place. The Labour government that we fight for must repeal all of the UK’s anti-union laws and deliver a revolution in workers’ rights.

For over 100 years, there has been an independent fire and rescue service union. The FBU has developed a unique cultural identity which has been woven into both the trade union movement and the fire and rescue service. Our conference is a celebration of that culture. It’s a culture of democracy and plurality, of local and national representation, and of solidarity and socialism.

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star on 15 May 2019

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