One hundred years of the Fire Brigades Union

Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, recently spoke to The Clarion. For the second part of this interview, see here.

It’s the centenary of the FBU this year. What’s the union doing and what lessons would you draw?

We’re celebrating the fact we’ve maintained an industry-specific union for a hundred years; it’s quite an achievement, especially considering the whole history of mergers in the British trade union movement. We’re trying to make it public facing: we’re trying to make it about fire fighters but also the fire service, and the role unions have played in shaping the modern fire and rescue service. It’s very much forward facing, not just looking at the past but looking forward to the kind of service we want to see as well as the conditions we want to see for firefighters. We’re saying to our members, imagine what would happen if there wasn’t the union there for even one year today, what the employers would do to us, and looking back at what would have happened if there hadn’t been a union for the last hundred years. Look at what the employers are doing now – and despite our difficulties, we do play a massive role, we played a huge role in developing the fire service, the job firefighters do, making it more professional, introducing new equipment and procedures to make firefighters and the public safe. We’re also looking at our role in the labour movement; raising questions about how we organise in the workplace and how we organise politically. We’ve got two books in production; we’ve produced a short documentary film; and we’ll be having a series of events around the country, some of which have already started.

Are there any particular landmarks in the history?

I’m a bit of an anorak on these things, so yeah, we’ve been having some discussions with some of our key activists about strategy and tactics. There were a number of big debates which were controversial in the time. At the start of the Second World War, the Fire Brigades Union had about 3,000 members; the service was smaller and many firefighters were in police fire brigades who were legally banned from being in a union. We were small, mainly London based. The government started to recruit auxiliary firefighters in preparation for the threat of bombing, and a big debate broke out in the union when the then general secretary said we should have nothing to do with them: they were ‘dilutees’, undermining pay and conditions, amateurs and so on. A younger group around a guy who eventually became the general secretary said hang on, there are 3,000 of us and 70,000 of them: we’re not going to win that battle, we have to go out and recruit them. Interestingly some members resigned in protest when that position went through, but the union went from 3,000 to 70,000 members in the space of four years. By the end of the Second World War we were in a position to shape the post-war fire service. It’s interesting how you take those decisions which are quite difficult; hindsight is perfect, but that the time it was quite controversial. Then in the 60s we launched a campaign to modernise the fire service, saying we shouldn’t just put out fires, we should be involved in fire prevention – which is now accepted, but it was controversial at the time. Some interesting debates industrially about how we should operate as a union, which have relevance for people today.

There are two big strikes, right, 1977 and 2002?

Well, actually there was the first one, a dispute in the 50s, which they called the “spit and polish strike”, so they didn’t go on strike, they refused to do routine duties. Thousands of them were disciplined as a result, a number dismissed or threatened with dismissal, but it became a big breakthrough in challenging this sort of militaristic discipline in the fire service. It probably established the union as a labour movement type organisation, more firmly. Then ’77, a lot of the leadership thought firefighters would never go on strike. The leadership was overturned by the conference, interestingly, the strike was called effectively by the conference, by the activist layers against the advice of the general secretary. It was a huge struggle, for them, and a real turning point that established pay and conditions for 25 years, really. A massive turning point. 2002 was very different, it was initiated and led from the top, not from below, in my assessment. The character of it was very different. There’s a chapter in our book about that period, that chapter is very interesting and probably controversial.  Lots of different views still about what it meant, the outcomes of it which we’re still living with today.

Is there wide discussion of all this among members?

We’ve tried very consciously, how successfully we’ll have to see, we don’t want to aim it just at FBU activists, we want to aim it at ‘ordinary’ members, so we’ve tried to make it very relevant to the job they do. Very recently it was the 60th anniversary of a fire in Smithfield, in 1958, in which two firefighters died, and we looked at what the union did at the time, and for me it was fascinating to read how the union looked at equipment, safety procedures, intervened in the coroner’s inquest, called station meetings to brief people, demanded action from the government, some of which happened very, very quickly. There are bits of safety equipment we still have today that came out of those fatalities and what the union did around them. How the union has shaped even things like breathing apparatuses. So we’ve tried to make it, these are the tools of the trade that you work with, but your union helped to create that as it is today, without the union it might be very different. The film, for example, touches on politics but we’ve tried to concentrate on the firefighting job and how the union’s influenced that, rather than higher-level politics so much.

Last time we spoke you talked quite a lot about the FBU’s explicitly socialist aims, is that part of it too? How has that changed over the years, how has members’ consciousness about it changed?

I think the consciousness has changed. If we go back to when I was growing up, lots more people would have described themselves as socialists, even though they might have meant lots of different things by that. In one of the books I explore a bit what different people mean by socialist. I look at what the words in our rule book say and what the people writing it must have meant. They talk about “the socialist system of society”; they clearly saw that as something comprehensively different to this system of society and they thought it was the socialist system, it wasn’t that there were multiple varieties, it meant something clear. It also discusses how firefighters are workers, and part of an international class, in reality, so I’ve used that to try and explore why people in the 1940s would write that but also why we should discuss that today, especially after ten years of economic crisis and stagnation.

What would you see as the main important developments and lessons of the last year?

I suppose the biggest thing was the general election; but shortly after that we had Grenfell, which I will come back to [see the second part of the interview – to be published soon]. The election, when it was announced, lots of people on the left were worried about where that was going to lead, because clearly the Tories would not have called it had they not been very confident about winning an increased majority. That was clearly their perspective, and also the perspective of the press, the media, and I suspect a lot of ordinary trade unionists as well. It was a remarkable turnaround during that campaign. I have to give credit to the Labour leadership, Corbyn and McDonnell, who fronted that up in quite bold way and ran a bold campaign. Jeremy Corbyn clearly enjoys campaigning and he’s a good campaigner. They blew apart some of the assumptions that have been around in politics for the last twenty years that you just have to run a slick media campaign, that the days of doing rallies and so on are past. It was fantastic that they demolished that, calling these huge rallies all over the country. Even when I was younger that tradition was dying out; I was involved in some campaigns where we did that but even in the 80s it was dying out, or had died out largely. The program, I’ve got plenty of criticism of it, but… I was at the launch of the manifesto and it was in a student venue; you had all the Labour Party people seated but all the students around the balcony, and when Corbyn mentioned tackling tuition fees there was a huge response. It was quite moving to hear people inspired by a politician saying we’re going to do these things which really help young people. The other strand is it was clear that within the party there people waiting for the inevitable defeat so that on election night they could launch their next coup against Corbyn. Clearly some of them were stunned by the outcome. It was the most exciting election night for a long, long time, the most exciting election night I can remember. So that has really transformed the situation, in the Labour Party, in terms of Corbyn’s position. You compare Labour Party conference last year with the one the year before. The mood, the atmosphere, the debates, I think a significant shift, with a lot more confidence from the rank and file as well as the leadership. These are very positive developments, despite weaknesses that still exist.

What would be the next steps you’d want to see?

The review of party structures under Katy Clark is an opportunity to start having a real discussion. There are certain things that in theory might be ruled out of that debate, but it’s an opportunity to start saying this is the democratisation we want to see, this is what we want to see about our conference, this is what we want to see about the way our local parties are run, this is the way we want to see the National Executive run, and this is what we want to see about accountability of elected politicians, whether at local authority level or a parliamentary level. All those debates need to be had. It’s an opportunity say we’re really going to democratise the Labour Party and the members will be put in control of it, and that will improve things and take the movement forward. Speaking personally, because we haven’t discussed this in the union, I’d like to see further democratising of Labour’s National Executive. I don’t see personally why existing elected politicians should have a particularly privileged position in the democratic structures. I can see the party leader and so on, but I don’t see why local authority people, for instance, they’re party members the same as I am. Party conference needs further democratisation, and it should be made clear that it’s the sovereign decision-making body of the organisation, that sets policy, and that policy should then be party of the process by which manifestos are drawn up and which we expect elected representatives to apply. I think there needs to a debate about Labour in local government; one of the setbacks the previous year, in my view, was the rule change about local authority budgets. There’s a debate to be had, but the idea you launch into your rules something about a tactical question like deficit budgets seems silly to me. It’s a tactical decision, not a matter for the rules of the party. It was clearly a case of we’re going to batter this idea down before it even raises its head. Why can’t we have a debate about what we should be doing in local government? Finally, we need accountability of elected representatives; there should be more rank-and-file control over all of those whether they’re in local government or Parliament or the assemblies.

Are there counter-trends, in terms of sections of the left with a top-down, command-and-control attitude to things?

Yes, for sure, it’s quite a confusing situation in lots of ways. There’s all sorts of trends, of course we had the debate in Momentum about Momentum’s democratic structures, and I stand by the criticisms we raised at the time. Things have moved on and clearly Momentum has built an effective organisation; but if we’re going to build democratic culture in politics, in labour movement politics, then there has to be clear mechanisms of accountability, whether that’s in the unions, or the Labour Party, or left-wing groups and campaigns as well. The idea that everything can be done in whatever the equivalent of a smoke-filled room is these days has to change; we need genuine accountability and openness and debate.

What policies would you like to see in terms of developing things?

Labour should be a lot clearer about public ownership. There’s a lot of positive things; I genuinely welcome discussing about what do we mean by public ownership, about models of ownership? Having worked in the public service all my adult life know that they’re far from perfect; the NHS isn’t perfect; education isn’t perfect – so how do we build public services that are accountable to the people, that take account of the views of the people who use those services and those who deliver them, rather than some bureaucrat in a town hall or in Whitehall. That should be discussed and we should take that forward into the private sector, to ask what kind of models we want for the workplaces of the future. There’s a debate to had, of course, about what’s being said about trade union laws, and we need to say there is far too much state interference in the running of trade unions, and that should be completely rolled back. State interference in the voluntary organisations of workers – we should have a principled objection to that. I get the Labour leadership are weighing up the risks they’ll face, but our starting point has to be, we don’t support anti-union laws – full stop. We want to discuss how we get rid of them. If other people have a different point of view, let’s have that debate. We need to discuss how we get this into the manifesto and how do we make sure we get a Parliamentary Labour Party that will all vote for it when it comes up. The unions have to be clear what the unions want. If we look at the Blair-Brown years, the question has to be asked why did Labour-affiliated unions allow 13 years of Labour government to go through and not see the repeal of those laws, because it’s put us in a much weaker position as a trade union movement.

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