Firefighters resist vindictive new attack by employer

by Nick Scullin
(NB: This is an updated version of the article we put up a couple of hours ago, as there have been new developments today)

The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union (NZPFU) committee this morning decided to withdraw their current strike action, as of 8am, Monday (March 26).  The committee decision was made in light of the resumption of negotiations on Tuesday.  They also decided that on or before Friday, April 13, the state of the negotiations will be assessed to decide whether to resume industrial action.

In today’s Urgent Notice to Members, the union’s committee notes that the employer, the New Zealand Fire Service, has begun to address concerns raised by firefighters about relieving clauses in the proposed new contract.

On March 6, the firefighters’ union had given notice of further industrial action, including a ban on rostering duties.  In retaliation, their employer issued a notice that it would no longer allow alternative holidays, service holidays, pro-rata leave, time-banked shifts, long-service leave, sporting leave, cultural leave and tuition leave.

The employer referred to these types of leave as “discretionary leave”.  However, most of the types of leave required in the firefighters’ contract are entitlements under the Holidays Act.

This vindictive action on the part of the Fire Service shows the validity of a point made by London firefighter Sian Griffiths in a message of support she sent the New Zealand union: “As firefighters we are held in high esteem by the public but in contempt by our employers. . . don’t let the bastards get you down.”

In a meeting this morning between union representatives and representatives of the Fire Service, the employers retreated on the leave issue.  The official notice to union members records, “The parties have reached an agreement to resolve this matter which essentially provides that the employer when considering any ‘discretionary timing’ of any leave to be taken must act fairly and reasonably and on an individual basis.”

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the employer, who so far has shown a degree of vindictiveness, will keep to this agreement.

While some individual firefighters have expressed frustration with the withdrawal of industrial action, any agreement does have to go back to the ranks before it becomes final.  And the NZPFU is a small, well-organised and very close union.  Members in general seem to take a lot of interest in the union and are quite engaged.  This bodes fairly well for democratic decision-making and for effective action in pursuit of clams around pay and conditions.

Since it is pretty much impossible for firefighters to simply walk off the job nationwide, the firefighters are dependent on public support, more than most unions.  Fortunately, they’ve long enjoyed sizeable popular support and this has no doubt become even stronger since the Christchurch earthquakes.

The NZPFU has also received support from firefighters in Australia, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, along with messages of solidarity from leaders of the Maritime Union and Rail and Transport Union here.

Invercargill Professional Firefighters Union secretary Aaron Ramsey has “compared the dispute with the strike action at the Port of Auckland and AFFCO meat works, where employers were attempting to introduce flexible rostering” (Southland Times).  He said, “We need to raise awareness, we are facing the same problems as the other striking unions. . .  It’s the casualisation of the workforce.  Eight days notice (of shifts) isn’t enough and we don’t want any part of that.”

Workers and unionists around the country having been getting in behind the wharfies and they need to be getting in behind the firefighters too, as well as supporting the AFFCO meat workers and the striking Oceania elderly support workers.

The firefighters have certainly been doing their bit.  Large contingents of firefighters have joined in the protest march and pickets that seem to have stopped the Ports of Auckland bosses from sacking the wharfies.  At the same time, their own fight has been long and hard – they’ve now been taking industrial action for eight months to get a new contract and prevent the casualisation that would see them receiving just eight days notice of shifts and possible 24-hour shifts.  The casualisation is all about cost-cutting and works to the detriment of firefighters’ conditions and personal and family lives as well as to the detriment of people whose fires these workers put out.

Firefighters in Christchurch have won one battle along the way, however.  Regional boss Rob Saunders was moved after a damning report from national commander Mike Hall into the response to the February 22 earthquake last year.  The report slammed managers for either being absent or not up to the task while praising firefighters and stating that the whole response was basically run by senior firefighters because managers were a no-show.

Local firefighters report that when Saunders did show up he was out of his depth.  The union’s southern branch president, Denis Fitzmaurice, told local Christchurch paper the Mainland Press that Saunders “was there within an hour of the quake but was shunted aside after a couple of hours.  He was not up to it.”  It was senior station officers who essentially organised things, and the fire crews performed exceptionally.

As is usually the case, it’s the workers on the job, rather than the top managers, who know best what to do.

When unions and workers fight together they can win. We should always remember the slogan proudly emblazoned on the banner brought by the delegates from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who came from Los Angeles to support the wharfies: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”  The firefighters, the wharfies, the Oceania and meat workers are all basically fighting the same issues.  It’s about time our side chalked up some victories in what has so far been a rather one-sided class war by employers on workers’ pay, conditions, living standards and rights.

Support for the firefighters can be shown by using email footers available from the union, Facebook supporter badges, supporter games and other campaign material from:

Earlier articles:
Firefighters giving a lead
Auckland firefighters’ solidarity with wharfies

2.7% rise for firefighters, 70% for their boss

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