Forwarded from Ernie Tate

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu May 24 11:10:21 MDT 2001

Socialist Alliance - Because There's No Choice

Joe Hearne, Socialist Alliance candidate for Luton South, writes: At the
Fire Brigades Union Annual Conference last week I was awarded a prize of
£100 as the winner of the Arthur Charles Memorial Competition, an annual
event open to Fire Brigades Union members. The competition is for the best
essay on a subject related to the Fire Service or the Fire Brigades Union.
My entry was about the Socialist Alliance. When I won the prize I decided
to split it evenly between the four FBU Socialist Alliance candidates, Neil
Thompson, St Helens South; Steve Godward, Erdington; Dick Duane, Basildon
and myself in Luton South. I am sure they will put it to good use.

The beginning of my story, for the purposes of this essay anyway, is in
August 1977. Working in a job that I hated and my partner having left me
due to my low self esteem and moodiness I decided a change of direction was
needed. Following a conversation with an acquaintance, I applied to join
the Fire Service.

As I sit typing these words it is twenty three years later in December 2000
and I have just been done a tremendous honour. Two weeks ago I was selected
by the Bedfordshire Socialist Alliance as its candidate to fight the next
General Election in the Labour held constituency of Luton South. By the
time anyone reads this, apart from the judges of the Arthur Charles
Memorial Essay, the election will probably have taken place.

Between these two events is a story which I believe will have a familiar
ring to it among many trade union activists and Labour Party supporters,
perhaps particularly within the Fire Brigades Union.

Back in 1977, I was accepted for training as a fireman (as we were called
then). The next few weeks were pretty intense but we recruits were soon
made aware that all was not rosy in our newly adopted employment. We had
all joined the union and we were invited to some branch meetings where we
were told that a strike vote had been won and as recruits who had had no
involvement in the run-up to that vote, no-one would blame us if we took no
part in the strike. We held a meeting amongst ourselves and all decided
that the union's case was good and that we would strike as well. In the
next nine weeks I learned all about comradeship and solidarity as I joined
the picket at my nearest fire station.

The union's case in essence was that firefighters (I will use the correct
term from now on even though it was rarely used at the time) and Control
staff worked excessive hours for a pittance and that our communities were
being poorly protected by such an under resourced service. A measure of the
poverty of those days was that almost no firefighters owned there own homes
and most of those with families were receiving income support. The Labour
Government of James Callaghan had agreed with the various studies into the
job that said improvements in pay and conditions were necessary but it had
a big problem. A condition of getting a loan from the International
Monetary Fund was a cutting of public sector expenditure and the Government
had decided to impose a rigid pay freeze. They had to choose between being
fair to workers or keeping global capitalism happy. No contest. The
Government were trying to enforce a pay rise limit of ten per cent, our
claim was for thirty per cent. I know this sounds outrageous now but you
have to remember that inflation was running at sixteen per cent and
firefighters' pay had been slipping for years. The strike ended after nine
weeks and we only got ten per cent but we got a shorter working week, ten
thousand extra firefighters were employed and our pay was to be set by a
formula which would keep us in the upper quartile of skilled manual
workers. The Labour Government had kept its pay policy intact but we had
secured our future and we became a group of workers who had taken action
and that kept us strong for many years into the future. A year later many
other workers took action against cuts and pay restraint. It was called
"the winter of discontent" by the press and it led to Labour's downfall and
eighteen years of Tory rule. I nearly said the start of Thatcherism but I
think that would be inaccurate. Thatcherism started with Callaghan and the
IMF loan and continues to this day.

That was my baptism into industrial politics. A few years later, in the
early eighties, I took the job of branch minutes secretary and was
persuaded to attend Regional and National FBU schools. At the time, there
was a struggle going on for the heart and soul of the Labour Party and at
National School there was intense debate about the possibilities opening up
for trade unionists by the campaign of Tony Benn to democratise the party.
We could be influential in setting party policy, in selecting local and
parliamentary candidates and in de-selecting them if they did not carry out
our policies. I and many others from those schools joined the Labour Party
and Trades Councils and became active in promoting FBU interests in
particular and socialist politics generally. Tony Benn failed in his bid
for Deputy Leader and Neil Kinnock and Denis Healy took the party further
to the right. There was a witch hunt of militants and socialism was
gradually eased out of the party programme. Although Labour were making
progress in local elections they proved to be as bad as the Tories when it
came to cutting public services. With a few honourable exceptions, they did
nothing to help workers in struggle and tacitly supported Thatcher's anti
trade union legislation. The last straw for me was the 1984-85 miners
strike. The miners were totally betrayed by the Labour party and by the TUC
and I was ashamed that we had not taken the opportunity to stop Thatcher
before she could set the working class back a hundred years. I was a member
of a party that I could not recommend my members to vote for and I left
soon afterwards.

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Louis Proyect
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