Firefighters choose far-left activist as leader

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The Independent Online

A far-left activist has been elected the leader of Britain's 52,000 firefighters, prompting management fears of fresh conflict with the Government.

Andy Gilchrist, the incumbent general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was heavily defeated in what was seen as a referendum on his handling of last year's fire dispute.

The new leader of the union is Matt Wrack, who attracted the backing of a wide range of militants, including Trotskyites, because of his opposition to the deal which ended the long and bitter dispute.

Mr Wrack, who was elected assistant general secretary of the union in February, secured 12,883 votes, or 63.9 per cent of the total, while Mr Gilchrist, leader of the union for five years, received 7,259, or 36. 1 per cent of the votes.

Senior managers expressed their concern over the election of Mr Wrack whom they believe will lead the union into a fresh bout of industrial action.

Moderate FBU members argued that a new strategy of militancy would be welcomed by New Labour hawks in the Government as an opportunity to undermine or even destroy the union. Supporters of the new general secretary contend that only a strong, united front, with industrial action as an option, will enable firefighters to protect their wages and conditions.

Mr Wrack, 42, was an outspoken critic of Mr Gilchrist towards the end of a series of strikes last year during whichelderly Green Goddess fire engines, manned by army personnel, were deployed.

Born in Manchester, Mr Wrack joined the FBU in London in 1983. He has been an official of the union for 21 years, building a power base within the left-wing London branches.

After the result Mr Wrack called on members to show "unity and strength of purpose'' over the issues facing the union. "I'm now looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting down to the task,'' he said.

The new FBU general secretary was bitterly opposed to the deal which ended last year's dispute and involved a 16 per cent pay increase over three years. He also opposed the productivity concessions the union conceded in order to arrive at a compromise with management. The FBU had demanded a 40 per cent pay increase "without strings'' which would have put a qualified fire-fighter on £30,000 a year.

Although fire authorities ostensibly had the freedom to negotiate a settlement with the union, in reality it was known that New Labour loyalists in government and their allies sometimes intervened in negotiations to block settlements with which they disagreed.

Apart from an occasionally obstructive attitude by ministers, Mr Gilchrist and his family also faced harassment by the right-wing press and revelations about his private life.

Mr Gilchrist congratulated the new FBU secretary and urged members to unite to face the challenges ahead.

Until last year's industrial action, firefighters pay had been tied to the top 25 per cent male, manual earnings. Mr Gilchrist argued that the job of the firefighter had become more technical and that the pay formula no longer reflected the training required to become a qualified firefighter.