by Susanne Kemp
Given that firefighters risk their lives for not exactly a lot of pay, you’d think that any half-decent government anywhere might be vitally concerned to ensure they have the best conditions possible as workers and their pay reflects both their skills and the danger of their jobs. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
Across the ditch in Victoria, for instance, instead of facilitating the firefighters in doing their job, the state government last year launched a massive assault on pay, conditions and the firefighters’ union itself. This assault was fronted by ‘socialist-feminist’ Emergency Services minister Jane Garrett. Garrett used feminist rhetoric – she’s also a member of the phony ‘Socialist Left’ faction in the Victorian ALP (Labor Party) – to attack the firefighters union. When she got booed by fireifghters, for instance, she accused them of “bullying”. More seriously, she was utterly backing the CFA (Country Fire Authority) and doing her damnedest to bring the union down. On June 9, however, the firefighters scored a small victory as she was forced to resign.
On the pay front, the firefighters haven’t had an increase since August 2013, and that was a meagre 1.5 percent. (1)
Meanwhile, on the wider anti-firefighter union front, ‘mainstream’ newspapers such as the Melbourne Age and the Herald Sun have joined in with the Country Fire Authority in attacking the union. The CFA is supposed to only cover genuinely rural areas and organise the work of volunteer firefighters – however in Victoria is has a wide remit and covers clearly city/urban areas such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and even 3/5 of Melbourne’s suburbs!
The CFA board is dominated by particularly reactionary bosses and has a long record of not giving a shit about the health and safety of firefighters, both professional and volunteer. An article by veteran socialist and working class activist Mick Armstrong records for instance, “This is most graphically illustrated in the case of the CFA’s training school at Fiskville, where for decades trainees were contaminated with cancer-inducing chemicals. CFA management knew perfectly well that Fiskville was unsafe but refused to shut it down and, year after year, sent people there for training.
“The CFA management deliberately withheld test documents that confirmed that contaminated water at Fiskville was leading to clusters of cancer and publicly insisted that everything was fine. The other government bodies that are supposed to protect the health of workers – WorkSafe and the Environmental Protection Authority – colluded with the CFA management in the cover-up.”(2)
Essentially, running the fire service as cheaply as possible for their business mates is far more important for the CFA board members than the health and safety of firefighters.
The existing employment agreement, which the CFA has hoped it could simply roll over – except the firefighters decided not to roll over! – created all kinds of openings for attacks on these workers’ rights. As the May bulletin of the union reports, “This ‘offer’ does not show the work that has been done to improve the conditions to stop future legal attacks. In reality, CFA’s offer to ‘roll over’ the current enterprise agreement is nothing but a lure to try to keep firefighters and the UFU in constant litigation. . . CFA’s offer to roll over the agreement means that they want to keep firefighters exposed to litigation, and to continue the ideological fight against the conditions that firefighters have fought for.” (3)
And the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) isn’t much better. For instance, the combined total of fire service levy spent by the CFA and MFB to remove conditions of employment through litigation from 2011 to 2014 was $Aus21,000,000 – that’s about 23 million NZ dollars! (4)
Another sign of the attitudes of the MFB bosses is that last December, in the lead-up to Christmas, they suddenly and without consultation, imposed a new rostering system on Victoria firefighters. Peter Marshall, the secretary of the Victoria branch of the national United Firefighters Union, noted, “It seems to be an industrial wedge to demonise firefighters. We want this clarified.
“There is a tried and proven system in place to protect the community that has operated for the last three decades as well as system of recall in the event that extra resources are needed.
“One can only ask why the MFB wants to introduce a new system that no one understands on the eve of the heatwave.”
An important issue for the Victoria firefighters – in fact, for firefighters globally – is fatigue. Early December had seen two suicides within 72 hours in a Victoria fire station. As Peter Marshall noted, “Firefighters suffer extraordinary levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and much of their work is dangerous, dirty and confronting.
“It is unfortunate that the Andrews Government has delayed funding for firefighters suffering PTSD to get access to a unit at the Austin Hospital.
“The need is great, and urgent.”
The horror of the suicides made worse the pressures of summer firefighting as well as the fact that the Victoria firefighters had already gone close to three years without a workplace agreement and were suffering repeated political attacks by the state government – a Labour government which the union had, unfortunately, helped get elected – and repeated misrepresentations of the union’s claim by the state Labour government in Victoria, the Liberal Party opposition, and the ‘mainstream’ media.
“Morale is at a very low level,” reported Peter Marshall the week before Christmas, “but a full complement of firefighters will be on duty 24/7 throughout the festive period to protect the community.
”With an extreme fire season predicted, these factors add to an already challenging job.”
Mick Armstrong makes several vital political points in his article, ones which very much apply to New Zealand too:
“Fire fighting is a vital public service. We should no more have to rely on volunteers to do it in suburban Melbourne or major regional cities than we should rely on volunteers to staff hospitals, schools and universities or to drive ambulances.
“In bushfire-prone areas, clearly there is a need for a much greater number of part time firefighters who can be mobilised over summer, but they also should be paid for their work. Large numbers of part timers are paid by the government to work in the Army Reserve, for the Australian Electoral Commission and to collect the census, so why should you have to risk your life fighting fires for no pay?
“The reliance on large numbers of volunteers not only undermines the conditions of full time fighters but puts a downward pressure on the wages of all workers, especially in rural areas. It also undermines the idea that governments should have to provide basic public services for all.” (5)
There are some other important lessons from this dispute. The UFU’s Victoria branch put its trust in the Australian Labor Party and, as usual, the ALP government stabbed the workers in the back. They’re also not the only union in Victoria suffering from being naive about the ALP. The Health and Community Services Union has had to deal with the Victorian state government outsourcing government disability services work. Labor, of course, promised the union before the election that the jobs would be kept in government hands and there would be no outsourcing. After the 6,000 disability support workers faced “absolute betrayal”, as HACSU state secretary Lloyd Williams put it.
But the key questions here are: Shouldn’t unions know better by now than to trust anything that comes out of politicians’ mouths? Shouldn’t they know not to trust Labour?
Unions across the ditch and here in New Zealand need to rely on each other, and on the wider working class. We need an alternative to all the politicians who screw us over – we need our own political movement, a movement of, by and for workers.
- See Richard Willingham, “Victorian firefighters seek industrial action”: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/victorian-firefighters-seek-industrial-action-20150724-gijwm5.html; a union petition to the state government says, however, that the last pay rise was in August 2012 and was an even more meagre 1%: http://www.ufuvic.asn.au/bulletin/reminder-ufu-email-campaign-in-response-to-premiers-email/
- See: http://www.ufuvic.asn.au/bulletin/ufu-bulletin-99-roll-over-the-old-eba-no-thanks/; this bulletin of the UFU also gives very detailed information on the minutiae of the old and MFB-proposed new employment agreement.
- See Mick’s article, ‘Stand with the firefighters’ union’: https://redflag.org.au/node/5329
- See: http://www.ufuvic.asn.au/bulletin/ufu-bulletin-99-roll-over-the-old-eba-no-thanks/
Below are pieces we’ve run on the firefighters and their union: