Representatives of the UK's seven million union members elected a new leader yesterday who immediately committed the trade union movement to unequivocal support for strikes by firefighters and attacked the "damaging language" used by the Prime Minister during the dispute.
Brendan Barber, chosen as the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, took a much tougher line over the fire-fighters' conflict than his predecessor, John Monks.
Mr Monks and the TUC's ruling general council have supported the campaign led by Andy Gilchrist, leader of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), for higher wages but Mr Barber declared his explicit backing for industrial action.
In his first interview as general secretary-elect, Mr Barber, 51, said the FBU had taken strike action "with the greatest reluctance" and had abided by the "essence'' of a TUC code of conduct that sought to protect life during industrial action. He said: "We support them in taking strike action. They have got an understanding with the Government about major incidents. It has been clear that, every day, firefighters were leaving picket lines where there was any sense that lives were at risk."
He said the dispute had soured relations between the Government and unions, and he attacked ministers for intervening to stop a deal. Referring to Tony Blair's description of Mr Gilchrist as "Scargillite", he said the Government's language had been "damaging'' for prospects of a settlement and for relations between unions and ministers.
He said that while the radical recommendations of the Bain report "may not be helpful'', they were a reality and employers' negotiators would have to consider them in face-to-face talks in January.
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