Sunday, August 31, 2008

2006: Firefighters strike against proposed cuts to services

On 31st August 2006, Merseyside Fire Brigades Union began strike action over cuts of £3.5 million proposed by Merseyside Fire Authority. Despite a sustained anti-FBU campaign by the Daily Post and Liverpool Echo, the untion succeeded in moving the cuts away from frontline services.

The dispute first got mainstream media attention in June, when Merseyside FBU representatives began meeting Fire Authority officials to protest against proposals to cut £3.5 million from the budget.

When Authority officials refused to budge, the FBU balloted its members about taking strike action. The result was announced in late August, with 71% of the 890 members who returned their ballot papers voting for strike action.

The first four day strike began on 31st August, with 170 former firefighters crossing the picket line and providing a minimal service, in return for time and a half. From the start, local newspapers served as a mouthpiece for Fire Authority bosses, and in particular Chief Fire Officer Tony McGuirk. The Territorial Army - who provided cover during the 2002-03 national firefighters strike - were stationed in occupied Afghanistan, and this was used as a stick with which to beat the FBU.

More than two weeks later, the Fire Authority had refused to back down, so firefighters were still on strike. The FBU held a massive march and rally in Liverpool city centre, at which around five thousand firefighters from around the country, assorted trade unionists and Merseyside-based well-wishers expressed their solidarity with the strikers.

On 29th September, after nearly four weeks of strike action against the to the Merseyside fire service, Fire Brigades Union negotiators agreed to implement £3.5 million of 'savings', the details of which can be read here. At no stage had the FBU raised the possibility of finding the money elsewhere in the government's budget (for example in military operations), meaning debate was always limited to where the axe would fall within the fire service.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Climate Camp and Class

Picture the scene. The setting sun is glinting off the visors of the police lined up in front of me. It's the second or third day of the week-long Camp for Climate Action - already I've lost count - and for the second or third time since I last slept it looks as if the cops are about to invade. I've just bolted from the opposite end of the site, where I've helped dig a defensive trench at another gate. To my left, atop a red van, a woman who sounds scouser than scouse exhaustedly screeches words of encouragement into a megaphone and somehow dances to Radiohead. To my right, a posher than posh couple casually talk up Cornish nationalism and agree that political correctness means white people suffer more oppression than anyone else on the planet. All the campers care about the environment, but that seems to be the only thing we have in common. That and - by now - a dislike of police.

Click here
for the rest of my Climate Camp analysis.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Wackness (15)

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine
Screening at FACT from 29th August 2008

Summer 1994 in New York City. Mayor Giuliani's one-two punch of massive social program cuts and 'zero tolerance' policing has left many reeling, rap and the dying days of grunge fill the airwaves, and eighteen year old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is struggling with being eighteen year old Luke Shapiro, a depressed (or just "sad"?) loner with a crush on his therapist's stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby). But he's not the only one with problems; all the adults in his life seem to be in trouble too. He has to sell drugs to keep a roof over his family's head, and his shrink (an extraordinarily different Ben Kingsley) is shrinking by the day. That shit is wack.

There seem to be two main types of teen movies in cinemas these days. The first, aimed at multiplexes, is the gross-out comedy in the vein of American Pie, where the predominantly male central characters struggle to get their ends away before the closing credits. The second - think Donnie Darko or The Butterfly Effect - shows the young people stumbling through a world that feels entirely alien to them, often with dream sequence effects, to make the viewer think the problem is in the head of the suffering teen, not in the alien world. The Wackness is somewhere in between, and it succeeds because of its realness, since writer/director Jonathan Levine hasn't so much made something up as used many different real life events and weaved a convincing story out of them.

In many ways this is a coming of age film, but it's actually Levine's, not Luke's. Now in his early thirties, he looks back with some nostalgia but also great perceptiveness and tries to make sense of his place in the world. The results are both observant and touchingly funny.

So far, Levine is sure of what he doesn't like (a world that's being turned into "one big fucking Happy Meal"), but doesn't seem to have much clue what he does like, beyond sex and music. He offers few easy answers, but has plenty of questions, and if he keeps asking them then his compassion and empathy will surely take him far. And his shit will be dope.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Liverpool Dockers' Strike 1995-98

David Sinclair
FACT bar, Wood Street (1st-28th August 2008)

Walton-born photographer David Sinclair's exhibition in the FACT bar offers a candid and fascinating look at the long-running Liverpool dockers' dispute of the mid 1990s.

The confrontation began in September 1995, when 329 stevedores refused to cross a picket line mounted by eighty former co-workers, who had been sacked by the Torside contractors. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company - who sought to crush any resistance to the casualisation of working conditions - then made the 329 redundant. So began a two and a half year campaign for reinstatement, which was isolated and then strangled by the Transport and General Workers Union. The end finally came in February, when the sacked dockers accepted a settlement of £28,000 from MDHC - just £85 per head.

Several themes crop us time and time again in Sinclair's stark black and white images. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of waiting around going on, with grimly determined pickers huddling around braziers and peering through fences. But there's also a lighter side, and pictures shot through with the kind of camaraderie that only collective struggle can bring.

Perhaps the most extraordinary snapshot shows a confrontation between picketer Jimmy Davies Jnr and Birkenhead MP Frank Field, who at the time was a Minister for Welfare Reform in Tony Blair's new Labour government. Some had held out hope that Labour would support the sacked dockers, but instead Blair used the dispute to send an unambiguous signal to his big business backers: he was very much on their side. The photo was taken at one of the very last pickets, at the Twelve Quays development in Birkenhead, and it clearly shows Field's face etched with the desire to escape from one of his constituents; a class enemy of his government.

The twenty-six photos chosen for the FACT exhibition comprise only a tiny proportion of the ten thousand Sinclair captured during the docks dispute. Hundreds more captioned images can be viewed on his Flickr account.

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