The New Worker

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Week commencing 6th December 2002

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ACAS enters the arena

THE FIRE BRIGADES Union's decision to go to ACAS, following an intervention by the conciliation services' chair last Friday, has predictably been hailed by the bourgeois press as an FBU climb-down and the beginning if not the end of the firefighters' dispute.

While Tony Blair's spin-merchants talk about "victory", the Government basks in the praise of the ruling class media for "standing up" to the firefighters' claim and forcing them to call off their latest strike.

This may be premature. But it is based on two assumptions: the first that the ACAS mediators will not come up with much which differs from the Government's last offer and the second is that the FBU will have to accept whatever is dished up by the conciliation and arbitration service. It hardly inspires much confidence in the impartiality of the ACAS mediators.

The FBU Executive has clearly come under considerable pressure to take this road, not least from the TUC, which welcomed the initiative. This is not surprising. ACAS was the darling of social-democracy in the old days. Mediation and arbitration was their solution to industrial disputes and their alternative to strike action back in the 70s but as workers soon learnt it was no substitute for collective bargaining.

ACAS was not set up to help striking workers win disputes. It's first objective is to get a return to work, its second is to then broker a deal between the two sides which can be presented to the membership as an "acceptable" compromise.

Of course when ACAS was established the concept of two sides, that of the employer and organised labour, was an accepted norm.  Strike action was regarded as a legitimate part of the bargaining procedure. In the same way the employers could resort to mass suspension, the "lock-out", to enforce their "right to manage" in the face of union resistance.

 A "third side", that of the state, was introduced in a variety of new bodies set up supposedly to represent the consumer or the interests of the elected government. ACAS in its own way was one of them.

Though embraced by the right-wing of the labour movement the rank-and-file soon saw that all of this was largely used to support the pay policies and economic direction of the government of the day.

Nowadays, in the land of Blair's "Third Way" we are told that there are no sides at all, only a common interest which only the current government can reflect. All those who challenge it, like the firefighters, are then branded as either living in the past, motivated by greed or by hidden political agendas.

The FBU leader has outraged Blair & Co for wishing to replace "New Labour with Real Labour", during a strike in which his members have been denigrated and their legitimate pay demands dismissed out of hand by the Prime Minister and his minions. This, they say is the real motive of the dispute.

It is utter drivel. If that was true then the Government could have easily resolved it by accepting the original 16 per cent compromise deal that the FBU thought was on the table.

What this dispute is over is pay and conditions and the Government's refusal to consider anything above four per cent unless it's "self-funded" through job-cuts -- what we used to call "productivity" and is now called "modernisation".

If demanding a living wage for a highly-trained and dangerous job is "political" so what? Is it such a crime to argue that the new pay package should be funded by central government? It is as far as Blair & Co are concerned.

The ultimate judge has to be the FBU's membership themselves. The firefighters' have remained solid over the past two stoppages and they are clearly ready for a third round if ACAS fails to broker a reasonable settlement. The solidarity of the rest of the labour movement is the key to victory and pressure must continue to ensure that one way or another the fight-fighters win their claim for a substantial increase in wages.

The FBU's claim could easily be met by making the rich pay more income tax, as they did in the past. But the Blair government has opted to stick to the Tories' agenda. It wants to make an example of the FBU to stifle any the hopes of any other groups of organised workers for decent wages.  We have to prove them wrong. Millions upon millions of working people back the firefighters. Their claim is just. With mass support the firefighters can win.

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