Firefighters flee national union as it bleeds cash
August 10, 2010
The national firefighters union is facing an uncertain future after a walkout by NSW members. Financial reports show the body haemorrhaging cash, and other state branches are reportedly ready to abandon ship.
About 85 per cent of the NSW branch of the United Firefighters Union of Australia (UFUA) – approximately 5100 firefighters – have terminated their national memberships in the past month, cutting the national body’s membership by about 35 per cent.
The mass walkout was in response to what the firefighters say has been a complete failure of governance, ”financial irregularities”, and refusal by the union leadership to follow democratic procedures.
It is the outcome of a long and bitter dispute between the two bodies, including a failed attempt by the NSW union to take over the national executive, and claims that large amounts of union money have been misspent at the national level.
The union’s leader, Peter Marshall, who is also the state secretary of the Victorian branch, did not return calls yesterday.
Financial statements reveal the union’s coffers to be all but empty. Between 2005 and 2009 the union’s accumulated assets plunged from $313,848 to $26,252, according to reports lodged with Fair Work Australia, while its cash supplies fell from $36,000 to $2000 during the course of the 2008-09 financial year.
”Looking at the most up-to-date financial information available – the 2009 financial statements – they were making losses of $30,000 a year,” said Michael Allen, principal at the independent accountancy firm RSM Bird Cameron.
”In the absence of any substantial equity they badly needed to increase their subscription income.”
But with a third of members walking out, this source of income is set to plunge about 35 per cent, or $98,000 a year.
The union will also almost certainly be forced to abandon an action in the Federal Court seeking $90,000 from the state body for what it claims are unpaid dues.
”I find it difficult to see how the UFUA can claim that it represents firefighters nationally or how it could ever achieve what it was established to do,” said the man leading the mass walkout, the NSW secretary, Jim Casey.
”I’d encourage firefighters interstate to think seriously about whether they want to stay in a failed organisation.”
Mr Casey is trying to persuade the other state and territory branches around the country to join NSW in a new national body.
He declined to comment on the discussions, but the Herald understands the ACT branch is interested in joining the split and the Queensland executive -angry at a proposed fee increase – is considering its options.
Serious questions have also been raised about Mr Marshall’s financial management at both state and federal level.
The financial statements show that while the national funds have drained away, $154,000 was spent on conferences and meetings.
At the state level, $232,000 was spent on phone bills in just two years compared with $20,000 by the NSW branch and hundreds of thousands on ”conferences and stewards training”.
In 2008, $30,612 was spent on attending the International Association of Firefighters annual conference in Toronto, Canada.
The following year $46,102 was spent on attending the John P. Redmond Symposium in Los Angeles on occupational health and safety in the fire services.