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Issue #1746      August 31, 2016

Anti-union firestorm

As another firefighting season approaches, Victorian country firefighting services are deeply divided to the point of incidents of harassment of paid (career) firefighters in the street. Families are also feeling the impact of tensions that have been deliberately fostered by the Liberal Party and corporate media. The immediate targets of the attack are state and federal Labor and the militant United Firefighters Union (UFU) and its secretary Peter Marshall.

Hundreds of career firefighters marched on the steps of Victorian Parliament earlier this year.

The vehicle for the attack is the proposed enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) between the UFU and the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria.

The relationship between many volunteers and paid firefighters has been poisoned, creating a dangerous situation in a service which depends on trust and team work.

“They have created unnecessary anxiety and stress for a political purpose,” Marshall said of the federal government.

The tensions and divisions have created the climate for support amongst volunteer firefighters and rural communities for a completely unjustified federal intervention in a state EBA. This is in the form of the so-called Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016 *.

Around 60,000 of the CFA’s staff are volunteer firefighters and 1,200 paid or what are referred to as career firefighters. The CFA covers part of the metropolitan Melbourne and the rest of Victoria. The UFU has two enterprise agreements, one with its members in metropolitan Melbourne who are employed by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the other with the CFA.

Lies and more lies

The negotiations themselves were torrid enough with the CFA board and responsible Minister being replaced. The Liberal Party went to great lengths to vilify the UFU and the Andrews Labor government, spitting out lie after lie about the contents of the EBA.

“Dummy websites were created, data was collected and funds were secretly directed to Liberal Party coffers under the guise of saving the CFA,” said Peter Marshall referring to some of the dirty tricks.

“Victoria’s fire services are not a political plaything. Victorians rightly expect career and volunteer firefighters to get back to work protecting them with the onset of another fire season,” Marshall said in a press release.

Marshall said that the Victorian Fire Brigade Volunteers (VFBV) continues trying to divide career and volunteer firefighters and undermine morale by spreading misinformation and launching politically motivated legal action.

The VFBV represents volunteer firefighters and its leadership has played a critical role backing the Liberals in fostering deep and tense divisions amongst its members. Its leadership are conservatives and its vision is based on “strong voluntarism”.

“It’s little wonder that many volunteer Brigades have publicly stated that the VFBV does not speak for them. They just want to get on with the job of fighting fires and protecting their communities,” Marshall noted.

A vote by operational firefighters on the proposed EBA is on hold until the outcome of a challenge to the EBA in the Supreme Court hearing is known. The case was initiated by volunteers and is set down for September 22.

Anti-union bill

Last week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash released the text of legislation to restrict the rights of the UFU and other unions with coverage in emergency services.

In a joint statement Cash and Turnbull said, “The Victorian government is seeking to hand control of the CFA’s volunteers to the United Firefighters Union (UFU) through a new enterprise agreement under the Fair Work Act.”

“The proposed CFA agreement includes a number of clauses that are clearly discriminatory against volunteers and provide the UFU with an unreasonable, unwarranted degree of control over volunteer operations, including a veto power over management decisions.”

“We will not stand by and let the discriminatory and offensive terms of this agreement undermine the effective use of the CFA’s volunteer firefighters,” Turnbull and Cash went on in their discriminatory and offensive vein.

The bill “gives volunteers a voice by providing volunteer organisations the right to make submissions in Fair Work Commission agreement approval proceedings.”

In other words, volunteer organisations such as the VFBV will have the power to intervene in hearings over the content of a union’s EBA when they have no interest in the outcome. The VFBV boasts on its website that it was involved in the drawing up of the legislation.

Federal intervention

The VFBV claims that if the proposed UFU agreement was adopted under current Commonwealth industrial law, it would effectively allow industrial interference into the organisation, operation and support of CFA volunteers, and CFA decision-making affecting volunteers.

This is not true.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has stood firmly behind the UFU in its battle against the Coalition government and corporate media who continue to peddle lies and slander.

Consultation not a right

The aim, according to the federal government is to “nullify enterprise agreements that watered down the capacity of state emergency service organisations to manage their volunteers” and “ensure emergency services volunteers are protected from union influence”.

It does this by specifying provisions that would not be permitted in an EBA – what it calls “objectionable emergency management terms”.

These are provisions that have, or are likely to have, the effect of limiting an emergency service’s ability to:

  • engage or deploy its volunteers
  • provide support or equipment to those volunteers
  • manage its operations in relation to those volunteers.

The bill prohibits provisions requiring a state or territory emergency service to consult or reach agreement with a trade union or any other person or body before doing any of the above.

In other words it rules out a requirement for management to consult with the union when making what might be critical decisions such as the ratio of professional/career firefighters to volunteers, how volunteers are integrated, and so on.

As volunteers use the same vehicles and equipment as career firefighters, the legislation effectively rules out the right to consultation for career firefighters, as the outcomes of those negotiations impact on volunteers! Firefighters who use equipment, drive vehicles, undergo the latest training are in the best position to know what is required. Not management.

It is imperative to consult on certain operational matters such as on the big mistakes that were made during the Black Saturday fires in 2009 when 172 people lost their lives.

Or in the case of Fiskville CFA training centre which was contaminated by toxic carcinogens such as arsenic, lead, bacteria Pseudomonas Auruginosa and banned fire-fighting foams PFOS/PFOA. Generations of firefighters were poisoned, resulting in deaths, illness and deformities in their children.

Where is the concern for these firefighters and their families or the call for protection? The centre was only closed following the election of the Labor Andrews government despite the Liberal Party knowing of the dangers for decades.

Contrary to government and media claims, “consultation” does not equate to “control” or having power over decision-making. Any sensible management would want to consult!

Despite media and Liberal Party claims to the contrary, the clause that ensures that seven firefighters are dispatched to every fire does not mean volunteers can’t fight fires until seven union members arrive. It means that anyone in a dangerous situation knows that qualified backup is on the way.

The bill constitutes a direct attack on emergency service workers in Victoria, who for years have been under siege by Coalition governments. It is important that the Andrews government is supporting the union.

It also sets a precedent in removing important provisions from EBAs, harking back to the days of the Howard government’s “allowable matters”. If the government succeeds in passing the bill, then there will be no stopping the assault on unions.

Like unions in the construction industry, UFU members have been systematically and consistently vilified in the media.

The bill covers all emergency services where there is union representation and there are employees covered by the Fair Work Act, not just in Victoria. It excludes non-statutory organisations such as Life Saving Australia, St John Ambulance and the Australian Red Cross which have both volunteers and paid employees.

This week a volunteer and a professional firefighter have joined UFU secretary Marshall on a two-day mission to Canberra to lobby Senate crossbenchers ahead of the legislation being introduced to parliament.

It remains to be seen whether the EBA will be upheld or defeated by government legislation, the Supreme Court and a Constitutional challenge. The bill has to pass both Houses. The position of some Senators is undeclared, making it vital that the cross-benchers are lobbied hard and the pressure kept on Labor to oppose it.

Volunteer Andrew Tonkin, from the Geelong City Fire Brigade said he had come to Canberra to show unity with the professional firefighters.

“We just want to get on with protecting the community,” Tonkin said.

* The bill can be found on the Department of Employment website: https://docs.employment.gov.au/documents/fair-work-amendment-respect-emergency-services-volunteers-bill-2016

Next article – Editorial – The struggle for a better world

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