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As free speech comes under attack in the Fire Brigades Union, members say




Controversy has again erupted in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), following news that the ruling executive council (EC) has voted to BAN union members from using a public website.


The move – which was OPPOSED by the newly elected General Secretary, Matt Wrack – has been condemned by the union’s rank and file members, one of whom described the EC’s actions as being “in the best traditions of a tinpot eastern European dictatorship”.


If FBU members breach the rule by using the website, they could find themselves disciplined or even expelled from the union. The vote was carried at the executive council meeting on 8th June, following a resolution tabled by the EC  member for Scotland, John McDonald, which called for the website’s proscription. Six members of the nineteen member EC sided with Wrack in opposing the resolution. They were Dean Mills, Jim Barbour, Mick Shaw, Keith Handscomb, Bob Blackburn and Dave Green. All other EC members who were present at the meeting voted in favour of the ban.


The website was set-up in 2002 by a Greater Manchester firefighter and FBU member. Since then, it has established itself as one of the most popular websites throughout the entire trade union movement and has won widespread acclaim, including coming third in Labourstart’s trade union website of the year competition in 2003.


The website, which was a key focal point for many FBU members during the national pay dispute, operates open forums, where fire service workers can log-on and contribute their views to any number of discussions regarding their service and union. It is thought that, since its formation, the site has been visited by thousands of the nation’s firefighters, as well as a number of senior officers and employers, who log-on to catch up with the latest news. During the pay dispute, even the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, admitted to the House of Commons that he had visited the website to get a feel for what firefighters were saying.


In fact, if a development of any significance occurs within the UK fire service or Fire Brigades Union, the chances are that the site will be first with the story. The website is administered on a day-to-day basis by a number of volunteers, most of whom are firefighters. Financially, it relies on the benevolence of its supporters.


In recent times, many contributors to the website, though strongly loyal to the FBU generally, have been highly-critical of the union’s leadership, mainly due to what they see as the mishandling of the national pay campaign and the inadequate deal that settled the dispute. Many appear to have lost faith with the union’s leaders, a view that was reinforced by the decisive victory of Matt Wrack last month in his contest with Andy Gilchrist for the position of FBU general secretary.


Not surprisingly, the FBU executive council’s decision to ban union members from using the site has caused widespread fury. It is reminiscent of the union leadership’s decision last year to ban the rank and file grouping Grassroots FBU, which was formed with the intention of reclaiming the union for the members, following the fall-out from the pay dispute.


The official reason given by the EC for the ban is that the website is infected with racists, sexists and homophobes and allows personal attacks on officials of the union.


An insider told us, “Just like the ban on Grassroots FBU, the only reason the website has been banned is because it was saying things that certain FBU leaders didn’t want to hear. The stuff about the site being infiltrated by racists is a red herring. I look at the site regularly, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the instances in three years where somebody has expressed what could be deemed as a blatantly racist view. Yes, some of the criticism aimed at senior officials is sometimes a bit over the top, but that is in itself no reason to ban the entire website. I’ve known occasions when senior officials have been personally castigated at branch meetings, but no-one would dream of banning branch meetings. And when people do sail close to the wind on the website, the site’s administrators do an excellent job in keeping things civil.”


The real reason, said the source, is that the website had shone a light on the dubious operating methods of the FBU leadership, “The site exposes their failings constantly. For too long the union’s leaders have got away with running our union with arrogance and contempt for the views of the members. In the last couple of years, particularly, they have run the union into the ground. They totally messed-up the pay campaign, got us one of the worst deals in industrial history, and have been extremely wasteful with the union’s finances. The website has been instrumental in holding them to account. It has allowed ordinary rank and file members of the FBU to network and organise in a way never before possible They see it as a threat. That’s why they want to destroy it.”


Another well-placed source told us, “One might have thought that the overwhelming victory for Matt Wrack in the general secretary election would convince these people that there is a wind of change blowing through the FBU, which is pretty much unstoppable. Members are sick and tired of the arrogance, the contempt for democracy and the witch-hunting of anyone who speaks out. The attack on the site is another desperate attempt by the old guard to maintain their rule. Unfortunately for them, it is destined to fail.”




The controversy intensified when it was revealed that John McDonald tabled the resolution banning the website WITHOUT the authority of his own members. EC members should only move formal resolutions if they have been sanctioned by the appropriate regional or sectional committee and, on matters which directly affect members, following consultation at branch level. An FBU member from Glasgow described the affair as a “stitch-up”, and said that McDonald had some serious questions to answer.


“McDonald’s behaviour is contemptible. He effectively wrote the resolution himself, and not a single rank see or discuss it. The resolution was not reflective of the views of Scottish members, and McDonald had no place to put it before the executive council Members in Scotland are seething about McDonald’s antics and are calling for his head.”


The PHOENIX has also learned that the resolution was NOT circulated to EC members seven days prior to the EC meeting, as is the required procedure. An EC insider told us, “The whole affair stinks. The resolution was circulated by the president, Ruth Winters, during the tea-break at the meeting, rather than seven days in advance, as she is required to do. Even the new general secretary had no knowledge of it. It was clearly a move designed to give us limited time to prepare counter-arguments, though I’ve no doubt the EC members who supported the resolution had had prior sight of it. When questioned, Winters became rather flustered and started waffling. It was a real set-up, something Joe Stalin would have been proud of!”


It has also been suggested that the move was linked to the private discussions held over dinner on the eve of the EC meeting between several members of the executive council and ex-general secretary Andy Gilchrist.


The decision to ban the website is a high-risk one by the union’s executive council, with some  members already apparently exploring the possibility of taking legal action under the Human Rights Act. Critics suggest that the alleged concerns about “personal attacks” are simply a cover for the real reason for the ban, which is that the website gives vent to oppositionist views in the union that challenge the executive council’s agenda.


An FBU branch official from the north-east of England told us, “This is about people’s civil liberties as much as anything else. For the EC to think that it can instruct the union’s members not to visit a public forum and have their say is like something from behind the Iron Curtain. It’s ironic that the EC is perfectly happy to support workers fighting for democracy and free speech in places like Colombia and Iraq, but at the same time is trying to force through such repressive and draconian measures at home. Wasn’t it Voltaire who said, ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’?”


Most controversial of all is the proposal by the EC to use members’ money to take legal action against those same members for libel, a charge for which there is no legal aid in defence.


The election of Matt Wrack was clearly a shot in the arm for FBU members. But it would appear that the new general secretary has a major battle on his hands to wrest control from the forces on the executive council loyal to ex-leader Andy Gilchrist. Officials supporting Wrack are clear that his  election will not by itself transform the FBU. For that to happen there needs to be a shift in the balance of power on the EC. For the “old guard” on the EC, meanwhile, it would appear that the war against its own members continues to take priority over the war against fire service employers.




This committee condemns the predominately anonymous and venomous personal attacks on FBU members and officials posted on the UK–FIRE web site. The vicious attacks fail to treat members with dignity and respect and are contrary to the rules and policies of the FBU.

This committee notes the concerns reflected at conference 2005 of potential and actual infiltration and use of the site by the BNP and non FBU members.

Many of the postings are of a sexist, racist or homophobic nature and are contrary to the aims of the unions “All Different All Equal” policies.

This committee calls on the Executive Council to :

Rule that membership; administration and posting on the UK – FIRE web site are contrary and prejudicial to the interest of the union.

Instruct that no member or official should participate in the aims, objectives or administration of the site by posting on the site, operating or helping to operate it or having any dealings with the site except dealings specifically to ask for the removal of material on the site.

Rule that the site acts outwith the democratic structure and democratic processes of the union.

Seek further legal advice to identify and take legal/IUD action against the site, its operators, contributors and against members who offend or breach FBU rules and policies.

That a standing EC subcommittee be established with a remit to ensure that members and officials who are the subject of postings on this or other websites which undermine the aims and policies of FBU are afforded the full protection of the FBU. The remit of the committee will include identifying and initiating the appropriate action against any member or official who fail to uphold the aims and policies of the FBU on this site or any other website.”


June 2005

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