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Terry Fields

Firemen – where now?

(February 1978)

From Militant, No. 392, 10 February 1978, p. 5.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“An ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory.” Since the firemen’s strike ended three weeks ago many members of the FBU have been drawing the lessons of the dispute and thinking of the future. In this EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Terry Harrison and Richard Knights, TERRY FIELDS, FBU Executive Council member, describes some of the conclusions that have been drawn from the experience of the strike.

Terry was asked what he thought of the strike, the settlement, and the future.

The settlement itself, whilst doing nothing to improve firemen’s wages, for the next twelve months, certainly, if followed through to its conclusion, will put firemen on a better footing than they’ve been in the past.

The future of the fire service is dependent on this present government carrying through its promises. The vagueness of the Tories’ statement, with regard to their commitment to us, leads us to believe that should they come to power, we might be in a different ball game again. Obviously a strike would be looming in the background of such a situation.

Labour Party

We’ve learnt some very valuable lessons about how to strike and I think we’d be more engaged in a guerrilla war than an all-out strike. With regard to the support we got, I must say we are really indebted to the Labour Party locally, the District Labour Party, the Labour Party Young Socialists, and a lot of other support.

Having come out of the background and into the forefront of political activity we’ve found a difference between the support of the Labour Party locally and the support we would hope to get from a socialist Labour government. But there isn’t a socialist Labour government, it’s proved that it’s tied up with big business, more concerned with the strictures placed upon it by the IMF and less with health, safety and life in this country.

So it’s a bit of a setback having brought the lads out and realising that there is support for them, and that there is an active trade union and labour movement, but to find that the government militates against us, and has used the whole pressure of the state machine to beat firemen into submission.

What was Terry’s attitude now to Labour Party affiliation and the political levy to the LP in the trade unions?

My commitment is to remain in the Labour Party, the argument for leaving could apply to the union, men are a bit distrustful of the Executive Council. But the only way to change the EC is to be part of the decision-making process. The same is true of the Labour Party, and rather than withdraw from the Labour Party, I would contend that a greater involvement by trade unionists and our people in particular, would bring about changes.

We must see to it that in the selection of candidates the proper man goes forward. Rather than someone remaining there year in, year out, as a matter of course, he is pulled back, and his constituency looks at his performance and sees to it that he reflects the views and aspirations of the ordinary rank and file members of the Labour Party.

The government has really done a disservice to the Labour Party, and I think if an election was called tomorrow, irrespective of the commitment we’ve got from the Labour government to carry out its pledges with the firemen’s pay, then you’d literally have 30,000 votes going against the Labour Party, simply on this one issue.

The same sort of accusation can be levelled against the leadership of the TUC. Trade unionists, locally, the rank and file, have been giving us financial support, but they’ve been hog-tied, with regard to involving themselves in industrial activity, because of the constitutions of their own unions. We’ve got the trade union leadership playing the government role, maintaining Labour in power, no matter what colour, simply so we can have a Labour government.

We found that the trade unionists locally at the shop floor were really involved with the firemen’s struggle. The TUC leadership has really betrayed firemen, bearing in mind the resolution 7 passed at last year’s congress on a return to free collective bargaining. We believe that the trade union movement has got serious questions to ask of its leadership. I would hope that democracy will reign in the trade unions, and these people who have sold out the working class will be brought to book by the rank and file.

What did Terry think about the role of the TUC and the trade unions in the strike?

As a socialist I believe that the socialists in the trade union movement could well at the end of the day come to our assistance.

The response locally – the march through town and the conference – was not supported by the trade union movement, and it raises serious questions. Were those Executive Council members who had no contact with the trade union movement in their own regions, said there was going to be no support, with hindsight now they can say “well we told you so.” They can say that they were never going to come to our assistance in any case.

That was a lesson we had to learn, one way or the other. We had to carry on like a Greek tragedy, and play out the final act, and perhaps find at the end of the day, and I’m sad to have to say this, that the trade union movement nationally would not have responded to the firemen’s plea.

The other side had all the big guns, the state machinery – DHSS, the media, everything else levelled against us. We believe that our brothers should have turned round and come to our assistance.

Let Down

So it was very, very disappointing that the trade union movement didn’t respond on a basic trade union principle like this. Indeed you must draw a parallel with the Grunwick situation, those people have been left there on a basic trade union principle.

I’ve done my share of making excuses for the trade union movement. We said that with Christmas coming up, they’d be loath to get involved, they’re not relying on low basic pay and reliant on overtime, and we’re not going to jeopardise that – we made all these excuses both locally and nationally.

Believing as I do in socialism and basic trade union democracy, if these people did in fact support us then they should have come out physically in support of us, in the end they let us down, through bankrupt leadership at the top.

The vote on the General Council of the TUC was just a conscience vote, it was a cover up, they wanted to be seen to be giving support to the firemen but not in sufficient numbers, which would have been an active demonstration by the whole of the trade union movement, in support of the firemen.


The controversy about Daly and Gormley voting different ways, bears out what I am saying, it was a conscience vote, to lead the firemen into believing, yes the trade union movement is behind you, but on a democratic vote. This wasn’t the case.

Our lads were very disappointed and indeed disgusted, that for the first time in their history they’ve looked around for trade union support and that has been denied them. The first time they’ve been on strike, and a government, to prove a phoney point, has beat them back into the dust, and beat them into submission in this way.

The troops were used to undermine what we were attempting to do. I think in supporting the troops and in raising their voices anytime we’ve attempted to picket army barracks, they showed that really they did not want us to go on strike. They did not allow us to get on with the true fight of stopping strike-breaking.

It’s a most extraordinary case firemen going on strike, but we never got a fair crack of the whip, either from the Labour Party or the trade union movement. I think people will have a lot to answer for when the history books are written.

What conclusions can you draw from the strike regarding the need for democracy in the trade union movement?

We’ve always believed, certainly in the Merseyside area, that we did have democracy as far as we were concerned. The intrusion of the rank and file movement was rather insulting to the trade union leadership on Merseyside. But it encouraged men to become involved in their branches, which is necessary.

I think it left me in no doubt at all, attending so many meetings at branch, division, brigade and regional level of the views of the membership. I think if an EC member removes himself to a great extent from his membership, he’s out of touch and really can’t reflect what’s going on.

Rules Revision

At the end of the day, the vote at the recall conference on the 12th January bore out the stand that those individual EC members too. They took a balanced judgement on what they believed their membership would accept and the membership responded by voting in favour of what they’d had to say.

I think as far as this union is concerned, we’ve got one of the most democratic in the country, direct access to the highest pinnacle of the organisation. Anyone can pick up a phone now and speak to the General Secretary, virtually any hour of the day or night. I think this is lacking in some unions, that’s for their own members to put right.

Some of the rule book changes at our annual conferences, you see foisted on the membership by the EC of the unions. It’s our rule revision conference this year, and bearing in mind the experiences we’ve had over the past ten weeks, our members will be seriously looking at ways of amending, if they feel that democracy is lacking in some area.

What was Terry’s reaction to the attitude of the Fire Officers?

It’s a shame that certain officers should forget where they’ve come from, and turn their back on the firemen. NAFO locally did take a decision that they wanted to go on strike, and put this to their executive, their ballot rejected this philosophy.


We believe that our officers on Merseyside should have taken unofficial action. Our fight is their fight, their claim was 40 per cent and now they’re stuck with 10 per cent. It’ll be a long day before some of the memories are forgotten, and the brigade and the fire service is going to suffer because of this.

What was the main lesson of the strike?

We’ll be looking at ways and means of keeping money aside to help other trade unionists when they go on strike. We realise the importance of cash when unions haven’t got a strike fund. It’s inexplicable when you’ve got a union with a million pounds invested, and all we hear of is the complications of getting this cash out to pay strike money.

There’ll have to be a strike fund because I don’t believe this strike is the end of strikes in the fire service. Not that we’re strike happy, but we don’t believe that our future is as golden as the offer would make out. I think that some time in years to come we’ll have to be going on strike again.

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