Kicking against the Pricks
This piece was written by a friend and Comrade of mine, Darryl Snow, some years ago for the FBEU quarterly magazine when he was FBEU President. Like me, Darryl was also the Illawarra sub-branch secretary on the State Committee of Management before he became President.
The post below is in honor of Darryl Snow (writer), Chris Read (the then State Sec FBEU), and all the NSW professional firefighters who fought along side us during the battle Death and Disability cover over many years.
Kicking Against The Pricks
To trawl through the chronology of events that make up the long running Death and Disability dispute is to arrive at the conclusion that there really is nothing new today that wasn’t known at the very beginning. Disappointment, rather than surprise, is how you might describe the not-so-new discovery that bosses are unwilling to honour their promises.
The Death and Disability dispute is a story about what Unions can do with the overwhelming support of 5400 of their members, what the bosses say they are going to do for 4500 of their employees (until one or two people tell them not to) and a Government that is so full of hypocrisy and arrogance that it is prepared to mislead it’s own caucus and the people for whom it notionally governs. It is also a salutary lesson to all of us that truth, really, is the first casualty of any war
But the most important lesson to emerge from this protracted and sometimes ugly dispute is that frustration and intimidation are very poor reasons to settle on an inferior outcome. Your Union officials, whilst frustrated, are certainly not intimidated nor are we ready to settle for a deal that lets this Government celebrate it’s own smugness.
Very recently, a very senior political figure (I can say now that it was Jeff Shaw RIP-a good soul) asked us to consider how well we have already done and urged that we go back to you, our members, and sell it as a win. That person is right – we have already had a big win. But not big enough to adequately secure the future of thousands of members now or the many thousands who will one day be both members of this dangerous profession and proud members of this Union. Where that person is completely wrong is that this dispute is not about politics. It’s not about recording a win. To their continuing disappointment we see it as far more important than that
To put all of that into context, your efforts in supporting this dispute have already meant $130,000 more for the family of just one of our comrades injured recently. Of course, there are more amongst our ranks. The greater tragedy of death on duty has occurred twice since this dispute commenced. Deputy Captain Kevin Brown was killed on duty last February and his family wait along side all of us to see whether we can prevail over a blitzkrieg of lies and misleading publicity sponsored by this Government. I don’t believe I am going out on a limb in saying that I’m betting we will
As we find ourselves back before the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) by application of the bosses it is instructive to gauge where it is we are now and to reflect on how we arrived here. More importantly there is now a very clear picture of a Union that has always been right and a Government that is just as wrong and just as unscrupulous today as the IRC noted with so much force way back in July 1999. But we will come to that later
Early in 1997 the Government under the auspices of the Public Employment Office (PEO) and your Union signed off on an Award clause that set this whole issue into train. The Union and the Government committed ourselves to Promise Number #1:
5.2.4 To engage a consultant, agreed to by the Department and the Union, to develop, within two years of the date of making this Award, a new superannuation scheme for employees. Such development to be in consultation with other NSW Emergency Services organisations, the Treasury and Premiers’ Department.
Like every other clause in an Award made by the IRC, it is an agreement between two parties. And like every other form of contract it is generally enforceable. No-one can dispute that the Government has welched on that agreement
This was followed by a dispute later in 1997 which ended when the Department reinstated a member back to full duties after they were dragged kicking and screaming to that position by the blunt instrument of industrial action. The IRC was again involved and recommended that a new superannuation scheme be implemented for firefighters
In finalising that dispute the Commissioner, Ian MacDougall AC (but not yet AFSM) wrote to the Union as follows with Promise Number #2:
“The fundamental principle relating to the development of the new superannuation scheme is recognised as being one of equity and it is not envisaged that there will be any diminution of benefits already applying to firefighters covered by other schemes. Whilst I cannot give an unfettered assurance that the scheme will be developed “no later than 31 August 1998”, I suggest that we both do our best to conclude it by that date and am conscious of the recommendation made in that regard by Conciliation Commissioner Tabbaa on 24 November, 1997.”
(Correspondence , Dept to Union 27/11/97)
It is now a matter of public record that the commitment given by the Commissioner, or the “fundamental principle” he was so proud to wrap himself in is no longer fundamental. Nor does it have merit as a principle in his persona of ‘servant of the Crown.’ Simply put, there is no new super scheme-yet. As for the time frame outlined, well…..that was a ‘non-core’ promise as well. Any question of the desirability of adhering to principles evaporated as soon as the dispute entered the political arena
Kicked off on August 1, 1999 by the most impressive, if not the most successful industrial demonstration seen in recent times the D and D caravan moved on to the IRC for some opinion. And in this case an opinion was well and truly dished out from the bench
In an almost unprecedented move the IRC issued a statement on July 30, 1999 that contained some of the strongest language ever directed against a Government in it’s guise as an employer. The IRC statement read in part
The Commission is disturbed by the PEO’s rejection of a general principle that there should be no disparity between death and disability benefits that are provided to New South Wales Firefighters who are injured in the course of their employment. It is a matter of great regret that the PEO has been unable to embrace as a general principle that as an employer it should treat employees with equity and fairness.
The actions of the PEO in the rejection of Recommendations aimed at the postponement of industrial action contingent upon, in essence, a commitment to a general principle that would provide for equity and fairness to employees is highly regrettable. It is even further disturbing that the explanations provided by the PEO as support for the rejection of such a commitment are plainly unreasonable, unnecessarily pedantic, and against the interests of industrial harmony.
Finally the Commission reiterates that the conduct of the PEO in respect of its failure to accept the spirit of Recommendations made by this Commission in order to avoid industrial action and to generally provide for basic fairness and equity represents a significant and disturbing departure from responsible and appropriate conduct on the part of a major employer in this State.
In a summation of the matters that had been presented before the IRC, the Commission questioned how, in the event of three firefighters dying on duty in the intervening period, the Government could explain to two widows of the three why they were not entitled to the same pensions as the member covered by the State Superannuation Fund
Quite so, you might think. In the face of such a damning assessment of the Government’s principles huge dollops of political spin were in great demand. So the bosses’ Caravan of Lies pulled out from the kerb hitching up new trailers at every stop. A couple of personal favourites over the time of this dispute are
This is what the Firefighters Union wanted
(a seemingly exasperated Commissioner Ian MacDougall on claiming that the Government’s offer met the test of equity. Open letter to all staff 1/8/99.)
The Government accepts that this situation, while not of it’s own making, is unfair. As a matter of principle, the Government believes there should be no disparity between death and disability benefits for frontline firefighters and it’s offer to the FBEU reflects this. (Minister for Emergency Services, Bob Debus.)
Which just goes to show that you firefighters have no idea what you are on about, doesn’t it? Either we are all fools and the Government totally capitulated to our demands without us realising it or they were lying about their offers.
But taking out the gong for the most expensive and insulting lie were the recent advertisements that appeared in the metropolitan newspapers. Citing a cost of $450 million dollars to fund an equitable scheme for 1500 full time and 3000 part time firefighters the Government went into spin doctor overdrive. In today’s political climate ‘spin’ overrides substance and this Government’s existence is underpinned because of it. The use of taxpayer-paid advertising to denigrate Government employees is an interesting tactic, to say the least. It becomes more interesting when the Government uses the media to wilfully misrepresent our argument, as it did with the teachers.
Is there an end in sight? You tell me. But it is certainly worth mentioning that in May 1999 during the midst of Award negotiations we were successful in updating the Award clause that started all of this. It might pain the Government to hear this but this clause should end it as well. The Award clause we negotiated is far stronger than the clause that begun all of this and provides an even firmer basis for the creation of a new super scheme. This is Promise Number #3:
5.3 The specific commitment in relation to this Award is to develop and implement, in accordance with clause 5.2.4 of the Crown Employees (NSW Fire Brigades Firefighting Staff) Award 1997, a new superannuation scheme or other agreed arrangement for employees. This commitment recognises that the parties have been unable to finalise negotiations on arrangements under the 1997 commitments.
The Department pontificates loudly to its employees about the importance of leadership within its own organisation. Talk, as always, is cheap. But the only conclusion to be drawn is that they have failed their own test. The truth is they lacked the stamina to stand up for the principles they were loud in espousing but never understood that they, too, might need to exhibit some bravery every now and then. The real shame is not that they lost their bottle, we are used to that, but that they slinked back behind enemy lines and picked up a few rocks to hurl at us. You remember it. Very few will forgive them for that. Even fewer will trust them in the future
And to the Government I sound this warning. Our world is real, yours is not. Your superannuation covers you for holidays, second jobs, rock fishing, water skiing, collapsible bike riding, death by auto eroticism and other foibles of the Tories that you really are. Be it choking to death on your own hypocrisy or the inevitable coronary at the end of a lifetime of boozy lunches at the taxpayers expense – it’s all the same. Ours is a world where real danger is faced and real people are encountered in times of tragedy.
The day that a house full of self-absorbed spivs, liars, lawyers and right wing thugs living in La-la land can dictate morality is a day that we are not prepared to let the sun rise. That’s why we aren’t about posting wins. That’s why we are all about securing our members future. And that’s why we will beat you.
P.S. And we did