“We need to mobilise around every single workplace fight for safety”

Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, spoke to the Fighting Back in 2021 rally organised by Arise on Saturday January 23rd, about what lies behind recent media attacks on his union. Below we reproduce his speech.

Thanks for the invitation to speak and solidarity form the FBU.

We’ve heard already about the appalling response from this government to the Covid crisis and how that has impacted on workers. It has been inefficient and incompetent but this is not simply a matter of who is the better manager.

Where I differ from the response of the Labour front bench is that, for me, there are fundamental political issues which lie behind the Tory approach. While they have tried to pretend that, “We’re all in this together,” as one nation, the truth is very different.

Covid has sharply exposed the class divisions in society. I think there are two sides to that. Firstly, there is the impact on workers. We have seen that it has been workers on the front line who have been most adversely affected by the pandemic: the ‘key workers’ who have kept us going are in both the public and the private sector.

Some of the highest occupational infection and death rates have been in the private sector, in areas like security work and transport. We have also seen the scandal of the lack of preparation in the public services, the shortages of PPE and so on. We have seen that Black and minority workers have been particularly affected. That is because of their disproportionate role in many of those front line – and often low paid – working class occupations.

The second way in which class plays out is that, despite the apparent shambles, some people have done very well out of the crisis. The Tories have used this opportunity to further push privatisation of our NHS and other services and to give significant contracts to private companies.

Now we also see bosses using the pandemic to force through attacks on working conditions. We see this in the battles over fire and re-hire.  And I’ll say this about that issue: I was pleased to see Keir Starmer express his support for British Gas workers and say that this tactic by employers should be illegal. It should indeed. But the truth is that is already happens a lot elsewhere, including in local government and including from Labour councils. Keir Starmer needs to demand that they also stop such attacks.

I’ll come onto my own sector in a moment, but here’s a point about the awarding of contracts. We are currently discussing the issue of Covid tests. There is a debate about which tests are appropriate and in what circumstances. We’ve been looking at the lateral flow tests. You may be aware from press reports that there is some controversy about their use.

The British tests are currently supplied by one firm, Innova. It was set up only last March – after the start of the pandemic – and it was established by two people; one previously involved in shoe sales and the other previously in the property business.  Now they are making a lot of money as a result of the contracts the UK government has awarded. “Never let a crisis go to waste” is obviously the slogan.

In the fire and rescue service, you will have seen yesterday the launch of a new attack on our union, the FBU. It is carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. It is staggering because the story which is being presented is almost the exact opposite of the truth. Even so-called liberal newspapers like the Guardian have repeated this drivel.

They accuse us – and it’s set out clearly in the Times today – of supposedly bullying our members so that they won’t volunteer for Covid related work. The Times reports an anonymous Chief Officer claiming that we have threatened people, including him or her. These are outrageous claims. But the reasons for them are also set out in the Times. The article says that within months they will bring in legislation to tackle the FBU.

To be clear, these accusations are entirely false. We have supported firefighters taking on additional roles to assist in Covid response. They have been driving ambulances. They have used their skills to train people in care homes in the use of PPE.

There are sixteen additional areas of work we signed up to. The one which brings home how serious the situation has been is that we have specialist teams of firefighters who have been moving the bodies of the deceased.

Our aim in doing this has been to do it safely. We are dealing with a deadly disease which we know spreads extremely rapidly. It is our requirements for workplace safety which have caused the argument and our employers – egged on by Chief Officers – have unilaterally ended our agreement with them so they can downgrade a key safety measure.

We will be facing up to that fight as other also will.

In facing these various attacks and challenges we also need to build unity around the politics we need to respond. That simply cannot be a claim that Labour is somehow a better set of managers than the Tories. We face a class attack and we must respond accordingly.

We need to mobilise around every single strike or workplace fight for safety. We need to place the battel for a socialist green new deal at the heart of what we do. We need to demand from Labour that there is no retreat on workers’ rights. We don’t just want to see the most recent anti-union legislation scrapped: we want it all gone. We need a campaign to force the privatisers out of our NHS and other public services.

Above all, we need to set out that there is an alternative.

This is a wealthy society. We have the resources to provide the jobs and homes people need and to provide top-quality public services.

The problem is that the wealth and power are in the wrong hands. That’s what we need to address. That’s the case for socialist policies. That’s the case for a different society and we need to make that case.

Watch the whole event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kj9k_ypCuTY&t=4647s

Follow Arise on social media https://www.facebook.com/ariselabourleftfestival and https://twitter.com/arise_festival

Image: Matt Wrack. Author: Fire Brigades Union, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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