The campaign to save London Fire Stations
Stuart King reports on a struggle that pits Boris Johnson against the London Fire Authority, the FBU and local communities across London
On Monday it was standing room only at the Bread and Roses in Clapham, a workers beer company pub run by the trade unions. A meeting had been called to organise against the threatened closure of Clapham Fire Station. At least eighty trade union and community activists crammed in to hear local Labour MP Kate Hoey, Greater London Authority member Val Shawcross, Ian Leahair FBU Executive member and local councillors report on the fight to stop fire station closures.
Boris Johnson in his recent eye catching announcement that he was cutting the GLA council tax precept by 7p, neglected to tell Londoners that as a result some of them will pay with their lives. He intends to pay for this reduction by closing down 12 fire stations across London, reducing the number of fire appliances by 18 and making 520 fire fighters redundant. The result will be delays in reaching fires, reduced fire prevention work that has helped cut the number of incidents across London in the last decade, and a situation that makes the capital a more dangerous place to live.
The London Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has been organising a lobbying and publicity campaign aimed at the Mayor around the slogan “He slashes, while you burn”. One result has been to strengthen the backbone of the GLA members on the London Fire Authority who have stood up to Johnson and refused to back the cuts. On two occasions the authority has voted 9 to 8 to refuse to move to consultation on the proposed closures, a result of a Labour, Lib-Dems and Green Party alliance.
Johnson’s attempt to direct the Fire Commissioner and the Fire Authority to start the necessary consultation around the proposed cuts failed after an emergency meeting of the authority on February 11 decided to reject the Mayor’s direction. Johnson now intends to try and overturn the Fire Authority’s decision in the high court, claiming they are effectively setting an unlawful budget
These closure proposals will only be stopped by a massive campaign across London.
Both union and community action needed
There were some positive – as well as some worrying – signs from the recent Clapham meeting, one of a number taking place across London. The London regional FBU leadership, while doing some good work on publicity, has failed to actively mobilise its members for action since it learned about the proposed closures in a leaked document last October.
At the Clapham meeting Ian Leahair, an FBU Executive Committee member, put the message across that “it was up to you, the public, to save the fire station”, implying that the FBU wouldn’t be taking industrial action itself. While he struck a militant note with a suggestion that the community could occupy the fire station on closure, the problem is that by the time the stations are closed and fire tenders withdrawn the struggle will be well on the way to being lost. The question rather is how do we prevent the closures from going ahead?
Fortunately there were lots of local trade unionists at the meeting; FBU members from Clapham and Westminster, Unison members, teachers from Lambeth and Wandsworth, UCU members, RMT officers, including several members from the local anti-cuts groups Lambeth Save Our Services. The unions offered solidarity and support for FBU action.
We managed over the course of the meeting to put across two things. Firstly, that we needed a two-pronged strategy that included community action alongside strike action by the FBU if we were to win. Secondly we emphasised that this could not be seen as a “hands off our local fire station” campaign but needed to be a London wide campaign against all the closures and job cuts. By the end of the meeting brother Leahair was saying the FBU would of course consult their members on action “when the time was right”.
Grass roots organisation
It would strengthen the campaign if the FBU members themselves set up a London wide network of militants campaigning against closures – both to pressure the regional FBU officials to take action and importantly to build solid links between the 12 stations under threat with the other fire stations. Only if all the fire fighters in London stand together can this round of closures be prevented through militant, and if necessary, sustained strike action across London combined with a mass community campaign.
And FBU members should be aware that this is only the first round. The Tory minister in charge of the fire service has just written to the Regulatory Reform Committee at Westminster seeking its views on new laws to “enable fire and rescue authorities in England to contract out their full range of services to a suitable provider”. This is the first move in plans for the wholesale privatisation of the fire service.
The meeting in Clapham agreed to set-up an open organising committee drawing in local trade unions, political parties and community groups to co-ordinate the campaign in an open and democratic manner – previously it had been run by Labour Party councillors. Hopefully such campaigns will be organised across London. A local demonstration in Clapham is planned for Saturday 16 March and we certainly need a mass London wide demonstration by the spring if Johnson gets the courts to over-rule the fire authority.