We will be inviting writers to discuss ways to challenge sexism in the movement; here Roy Wilkes talks about challenging the use of pornography in a male dominated workplace.
I joined Greater Manchester Fire Service in 1982. It was just a few years after the national strike, so I anticipated a progressive and militant workforce. The reality was not quite as straightforward, however. The union was certainly strong and well organised, and its local and national leaderships were progressive on many issues.
But the culture on the ground was in many ways quite backward. Back then the Service was still organised along military lines, certainly on the recruits training school, with parade ground drill, saluting of officers etc. And quite a few of the personnel were ex military — one of the instructors on my three month residential basic training course was an ex army physical training instructor, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.
The recruits course — at the now defunct London Road Fire Station — was certainly tough. About a quarter of the recruits dropped out on the second day because it was so gruelling. I very nearly dropped out myself. My wife, who was pregnant with our first child, agreed. But when I phoned my dad (who had done national service in the forties) he shamed me into staying. We were never allowed to walk on the yard, everything had to be at the double; in the classroom we couldn’t ask or answer a question without leaping up and standing to attention; on parade you had to stand to attention while a crazed psychopath yelled in your face because your boots weren’t shiny enough or there was a bit of dust under your bed. It all seemed so alien. The military style discipline did have some advantages though; when the FBU Brigade Secretary came in to talk to us about the union, the instructors made it very clear that everyone would be joining, even though there was officially no closed shop. And we all joined.
During the last week of basic training the instructors eased up on us a bit. One afternoon we had a group discussion session. We had to pick topics out of a hat and discuss them. One of the topics was the then still untried and novel idea of recruiting women to the service. I was the only recruit in favour of the idea, which immediately marked me out as an oddball. Our instructor made it perfectly clear that if any women ever did make it onto the training school it would be made ten times as hard for them to pass the course as it was for men — and believe me, it was hard enough for us. All of the instructors were agreed on this — the fire service was no place for women, whatever the Sex Discrimination Act said.
After completing my basic training, and the subsequent B.A. course at Salford Station, I was posted to Red Watch at Blackley Fire Station in North Manchester. Greater Manchester Fire Service was almost exclusively white and male back then, and my station was no different. There was a lot of overt racism, sexism and homophobia on the watch, not from everyone, but certainly from the most vocal and opinionated of my new colleagues. As a young Marxist i took it upon myself to challenge the bigotry, which led to quite a few heated exchanges. It gradually became apparent though that the loudest and most overt reactionaries were actually in a minority, and it wasn’t long before I was elected union rep on the station.
Sexism however was far more deeply ingrained even than racism. Hardly any of my colleagues were in favour of women joining the service as operational firefighters. Their wives wouldn’t like it, they said, as well as all the usual nonsense about women being too emotional and lacking physical strength. There was general agreement that if a woman ever did get posted to the watch there would be no concessions made; they would be expected to sleep in the same dorm as the men (we still had beds on the night shift in those days): and women recruits would still be expected to endure the same childish and humiliating initiation rituals that we had all had to put up with. These usually involved some permutation of getting tied up and drenched with water. They also insisted that the presence of women wouldn’t stop the men from watching pornography on the night shift; indeed, the women would be expected to join in and watch it like everyone else (as part of the esprit de cours). Porn wasn’t as prevalent back then as it is nowadays of course, there was no internet for a start, but there was a thriving trade in porn videos via a fireman from London Road.
One evening I arrived at my station for the night shift to discover that the men were demanding an urgent union meeting to defend two colleagues from Green Watch who had been suspended for an alleged sexual assault on the station secretary. A motion was passed to begin an immediate emergency calls only ‘demo’. There was no requirement for a secret ballot in those days, and we often took this sort of action at station level. I wasn’t happy about it but there was an overwhelming majority for action. The following day I met the victim. It was obvious to me that she was telling the truth and I told her that I believed her. I think deep down the other lads on Green watch knew she was telling the truth too — they knew the assailants better than I did — and it wasn’t too hard to persuade them to call off the action. The two men were never prosecuted, which they should have been, but they were transferred to another station, which was the compromise that NALGO (the secretary’s union) accepted. I bumped into one of them a few months later; I expected him to be angry at my ‘betrayal’ but he wasn’t, he was actually quite sheepish. I was transferred onto Green Watch to help make up their numbers (I think management saw that as an opportunity to throw me into the lions den, as they saw it, as a convenient way of dealing with a known militant.) As it turned out there was no animosity towards me on Green Watch, although no one ever admitted that the two men were guilty.
I left the fire service in 1987 to go into teaching. I only managed five years all told. It was shortly after that that the first women firefighters were recruited in London. I have the utmost respect and admiration for those pioneering women. I know that those brave trailblazers will have gone to hell and back to assert their right to the career of their choice.