When toward the end of May, the NZ Fire Service Commission announced that from 1 July all 1575 of its professional firefighters would have to reapply for their jobs, it is little wonder firefighters compared themselves to the sacked maritime workers in Melbourne. Especially when it was realised there would be fewer jobs to apply for, to cut the minimum fire engine crew size from four to three.
Firefighters are adamant that cutting engine crews will endanger their lives, and the lives they're paid to save. Very simply, three crew do not allow for adequate cover should something go wrong: a likely occurrence given the inherent danger of fighting fires.
All the evidence points to cost-cutting in the interests of Business as the reason for cutting the numbers of firefighters. It is no coincidence that the nature of the Fires Service restructuring matches closely the views widely publicised by the NZ Business Roundtable. In the view of Grant Gillon, (Alliance spokesperson on Emergency Services and himself an exfirefighter), "(T)he cuts to the Fire Service are purely to reduce the amount of levy that big corporate giants...have to pay--that's the agenda." [Listener, May 23. p19]
That view's given some credence by the fact that Commission boss, Roger Estall, comes from a background of advising companies on how to minimise their fire insurance levies. That was as a former director of Marsh McLennan, described as the biggest player in New Zealand's fire insurance market. Even though Estall denies there's a conflict of interest, now that he's resigned as a director, his continued involvement with Marsh McLennan has shrouded his motivation in suspicion. But no-one should be in any doubt that, whether there is a direct connection between Estall's business interests and the recently initiated plans to restructure the Fire Service or not, the proposed cuts would be engineered anyway, irrespective of which particular personnel heads the service. Estall's own agenda simply makes him a particularly apt choice, more willing to carry out business imperatives.
The brutality of the proposed cuts has alarmed many, and not just those sympathetic to the union movement. The Cabinet Minister responsible for the Fire Service, NZ First MP Jack Elder, has come under fire from his own caucus. Ex-Fire Service Commissioner and a former conservative MP Ken Comber has likened the move to what Patrick Stevedores tried to do the Australian waterfront workers. Unlike the waterfront workers, however, firefighters have not been pilloried in the way wharfies on both sides of the Tasman have been. Firefighters enjoy a wealth of public support, perceived--quite rightly--as workers who risk their lives in the service of others. With that advantage firefighters need to look to the response of their Australian working class brothers and sisters, to get a measure of how they should conduct their own fightback against the proposed cuts. But they need to look to the mood of militancy that motivated the rank and file of workers across the Tasman, not the tactics of the union officials, who sought to police and constrain that militancy. Unfortunately the indications are, that like their counterparts in Australia, the Firefighters Union is setting up its members for failure.
When Roger Estall took over as Fire Service chief, he swept the old management team before him. For that reason, the Union welcomed the Estall regime, believing foolishly that redundancies at a senior level meant a commitment to frontline staff. [Listener, Ibid, p18.] It also reflected the union's gleeful but shortsighted sense of revenge at having the previous management, who had put itself offside with the union by stalling on contract negotiations and employing 300 non-union "community safety" team members, done over in their turn. If anything, the new regime has proven itself to be even worse.
Apart from a few public actions, like the recent marches involving hundreds of firefighters from around the country, the union bureaucracy--in the person of its secretary, Derek Best-has preferred to pursue the campaign through legal and parliamentary channels. One of the first reactions of the union was to collect one hundred dollars off every firefighter to finance a case before the Courts. Derek Best has also welcomed the NZ First proposal to have the Fire Service move to offer "voluntary redundancy". Best was quoted as saying the proposal paved the way for an "effective consultation process, involving the union, local authorities, other emergency services and affected parties..." [ Quoted in The Dominion, Sat May 23,p2] It is no surprise that Best, like every union bureaucrat, wants a say in the decision about where the cuts are to be made. By other "emergency services" Best was no doubt referring to the Police. Perhaps that is why, at a recent march on Parliament, union officials sent a cop down the line to tell supporters of the International Bolshevik Tendency and a prominent student activist to stay out of the march. Having identified leftists marching with the union might disturb the evident buddy-buddy relationship between one emergency service and another.
But despite the strong connection between police and firefighters, born of common experience with life and death drama, there is a class line between the workers in uniform of the fire service and the uniformed branch of the state. Firefighters need look no further than the police treatment of student and union protestors in recent months, where there have been mass arrests and physically intimidating behaviour, to dispel the notion cops can be their friends when the chips are down. And if firefighters consider the experience of their fellow sacked workers in Melbourne, they can be sure that just as cops attempted to wreck the picket line on the docks to let in scab labour, NZ cops won't hesitate to mete out similar treatment to firefighters here, if need be. In other words, if firefighters actually attempt to defend their jobs through industrial action.
The way things are headed it seems as if actually defending jobs is not the priority of Derek Best. In the best tradition of the sell-out Trade Union officialdom, he is making sure that the firefighters' struggle remains within respectable confines. And that is a recipe for disaster. It will mean less jobs for firefighters and more risk for those not able to afford the technical array of sprinklers and alarms like those of Roger Estall and his mates.
By contrast, a militant approach would start with an ultimatum to the Fire Service: "make us redundant, and we're on strike. If Business wants firefighters out of work, then Business will take the blame for the consequences". Such a stance would immediately extend the struggle beyond a dispute with the Fire Service to a dispute with the Government. In order to properly defend themselves, firefighters would need to appeal to workers in other industries. The spirit that motivated tens of thousands of Aussie workers to march and down tools in support of the wharfies (against the wishes of their officials) could be harnessed here too. And there'd be heaps of it. All around, the signs are there that workers are sick of the last decade of social and economic attack.
The chain of defeats organised by the union leadership has demoralized many workers, and weakened their resistance which in turn emboldened the bosses. This vicious circle must be broken! Class-conscious militants must seek to channel the unrest and anger of the workers into effective resistance to the bourgeois offensive. An effective campaign in defense of the fire service workers could help to begin to turn things around. A victory for the firefighters could provide an important example for the rest of the labour movement and help change the political climate.
In the long run, the problems faced by NZ labour in general, and the firefighters in particular, cannot be solved within the framework of a system where profits must come before anything else. Only in a democratically planned, socialist economy will "safety first" replace "profits first." The timidity and craven legalism of the labour bureaucracy reflects their fundamental loyalty to the capitalist system. We in the International Bolshevik Tendency stand for building a new revolutionary leadership for New Zealand's embattled labor movement committed to working class victory in the class war. Join us!
--International Bolshevik Tendency (New Zealand) 9 July 1998
As firefighters and bosses go into mediation, Beware the Negotiated Sell Out
Yesterday, (Monday, 13 July) the firefighters' union and NZ Fire Service Commission went into mediation talks over the bosses' controversial plans to cut the numbers of professional firefighters by a third. If the plans go ahead, fire trucks will be crewed by three firefighters instead of four, below what is regarded as the minimum safety level. Union opposition to the plans has received overwhelming public support. (See our earlier statement dated 9 July 1998.)
By going into mediation, whereby an "independent" person seeks to get the two parties to come to an agreement, the bosses have put their restructuring plans on hold. But any deal worked out successfully through mediation must necessarily involve "compromises" on both sides. And with mediation talks open only to union officials, without reference to the members, the scene is most likely being set for a negotiated settlement that leaves firefighters--and the public--short.
Firefighters should reject any compromise deal outright. Instead, the union should be using the wealth of popular support to mobilise an all-out industrial campaign to force NZ Fire Service chief Roger Estall and his cronies to abandon their plans altogether!
--International Bolshevik Tendency (New Zealand) 14 July 1998