The United Kingdom’s Fire Brigades Union has expressed solidarity for Iranian workers fighting against suppression and to protect their rights. “We will always be with you in your struggle and we always remember the people who pay the ultimate price for their beliefs,” the union’s head told IranWire, adding that the union was “appalled that people are incarcerated for their beliefs.” Esmail Bakhshi, a labor activist for Haft-Tappeh Sugar Factory Workers in Khuzestan, southwest Iran, among others, continues to face a long prison sentence in Iran.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is a British trade union representing the majority of uniformed fire brigade staff in the UK, and has 34,000 members including control staff and retained firefighters. As a union with a long history of advocating for better working conditions for firefighters, the FBU has been very involved in lobbying and influencing politicians both locally and at the European Union level to attract attention to the working conditions of its members. With a history of more than 100 years, the FBU has been one of the most notable forces visibly shaping union activity in the UK. IranWire spoke to Dave Green, the National Officer of the Fire Brigades Union, about the struggles the union has faced in recent years of austerity, its political motivation and its support for firefighters and workers around the world.
Fire Brigades Union: A Centennial Tradition of Protecting Rights
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the FBU is its enduring existence. It is rare for a union to exist for more than 100 years and still be at the forefront of a fight to assiduously advance the interests of its members. “We fought many battles over the last 100 years and our members have gone through a lot,” says Dave Green. “The [second] world war really stretched the fire service. [This war] cemented the fire service into what it is today to a certain extent.” World War II was indeed a defining moment for the FBU — as Green points out, the FBU “lost around 2000 firefighters” in the line of duty during that period.
From its humble beginnings as an exclusively London-based union, the FBU has become a UK-wide fire service union. Its expansion has been so impressive that according to Green, the FBU is “now probably the biggest union that is solely for firefighters.” Asked about what explained FBU’s enduring existence, he said, “because we are a trade-orientated union. We only have firefighters in our union. We focus on their needs, their terms, their conditions of service, their personal protective equipment; we look after them when they are sick, and to a certain extent, when they retire. So, we are not fighting just for our members, but also for our fire service”.
Punching Above its Weight: a Union with a Legislative Impact
According to Green, one of the most important ways of bringing about change in the quality of life of thousands of firefighters is to push for legislation that will provide for this. “The FBU has helped to mould [the existing] fire security legislation in the UK,” Green says.“We have been at the forefront of campaigns for safety [of firefighters].” Thanks to the pressures emanating from the FBU’s campaigns, newly-introduced legislation has been more stringent.
The FBU also exerts pressure on the successive governments in the name of the firefighters that it represents. Green believes the union does have countervailing powers on the government. “I do think they take notice of us. We are very political, with a big P, and I make no apologies for that. If you exist as a group of workers, then you have to be political in order for you to achieve things. You have to apply lobbying pressure and you sometimes have to apply industrial pressure. Certainly, we have got people who are very passionate about the job they do and they are very active in the political arena.”
Given that being political is also an indispensable prerequisite for acting on behalf of workers, how does the FBU’s affiliate itself politically? “We are affiliated with the Labour Party. That means we are campaigning very vigorously for a return of the Labour Government. We don’t always get what we wish for, but that’s what we will always fight for. If we do that, then we will get a better fire service and a better public service.”
However, political affiliation doesn’t necessarily translate to blindly following the party. Green points out that the FBU is resolved to pinpoint mistakes — no matter which party makes them: “We will mention them whoever is in power. If it’s Tories, we will do that; if it is Labour, we will do that. We will point out their mistakes.”
Despite its influence, Green is quick to emphasize that compared with unions that have in excess of 1 million members, the FBU is a small union of 34,000 members. However, he says “we punch above our weight and that is something to be proud of.”
Austerity: A Structural Challenge to Organized Labor
Cost-cutting measures in public services, also known as austerity, have taken their toll on fire services in the UK. As noted by Green, “The last 20 years have been filled with great difficulties,” Green says. “We have seen the number of firefighters diminish in the UK as a result of austerity measures over the last decade. But we are still here fighting. Our intention is to still be here in another 100 years.”
Exactly how have these austerity measures affected the working conditions of firefighters? They have, Green says, “massively affected firefighters. I entered the fire services 25 years ago. Today it is a very different service from the one I entered. Over the last decade, we have certainly seen a big cut in the number of both firefighters and the number of fire stations; our terms and conditions are crucially impacted. So firefighters around the UK have not been protected one iota from the ravages of a very malicious and vindictive government in the UK mainly led by the Tory party, whose austerity is a way of battering the public sector and public sector workers.”
Green also said that more recently, over 12,000 firefighters have faced “natural wastage” rather than being made redundant. In other words, “people retire, and they are just not replaced, which represents 20 percent of all firefighters in the UK. That, coupled with a tax on their pension and a tax on their conditions of service, have meant that the fire service is not presently where it was.” One of the pernicious trends of such natural wastage Green refers to is that “the average age for firefighters in the UK is now well into the forties. So,it’s no longer a young person’s job. It’s now becoming a middle-aged or even an older person’s job. With the pension age of firefighters being raised, we’re now facing a situation where we have firefighters in their sixties.”
Solidarity with Other Unions Worldwide
International links with other unions worldwide are indispensable to foster solidarity, and this has been the case for the FBU. “Over a period of time, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s, we participated a lot in international solidarity across the world. We were also at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, for example. So we were recognized as being at the forefront of international solidarity.”
This being said, the FBU’s international activism has slowed down, due in large part to austerity-related problems.“Over the last 15 to 20 years, we had to scale back on it because what we have is tremendous problems for our people here in the UK. Our members said, not unreasonably, look, we know there are things going on in the world that are appalling, but what we need as a trade union is to protect our members and our communities.”
However, does that mean the end of solidarity? Absolutely not, Green says. Although austerity measures have had an adverse impact on the international activism of the FBU, “what we have done is that we have increased our solidarity links with other firefighter unions across the globe. We have very good relations with IAFF, which is the International Association of Firefighters in North America. We also operate with European public sector service unions. They have a firefighters’ network across Europe. We see the struggle of firefighters in Greece when they were faced with tremendous cuts due to austerity; or firefighters in Germany, in America, and certainly in Eastern Europe.”
When it comes to the ongoing repression of workers and union activists in Iran, Green says, “there are causes that we feel very strongly about. Certainly [the ongoing repression of workers in] Iran is one of them. We obviously follow the developments there. We are affiliated to the relevant campaigns in the UK on that. Where workers are repressed or are jailed for trying to exercise their basic human rights, then I think we are duty-bound as trade unionists and, dare I say, as a socialist, to support these people. We are appalled that people are incarcerated for their beliefs. So, our message to [Iranians] is we will always be with you in your struggle and we always remember the people who pay the ultimate price for their beliefs.