FBEU President’s Report 2013
For FBEU annual Journal
In a year characterised by budget cuts and temporary fire station closures, the FBEU has a stack of good news to report on, which is interesting given the climate that surrounds us. My report for the journal this year will talk about some of the adversity we face, but will also focus on what positive changes have taken place in our Union, outlining why we should all (permanent and retained) be proud of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We are facing many issues in our workplace at present, but all of these can be split up into two key areas – a hostile employer and culture change.
O’Farrell the hostile employer
While many of us see Fire and Rescue NSW as our employer, the fact is that the NSW Government pulls the purse strings. The O’Farrell government is currently on a mission to strip back the NSW public sector. While atrocities like the Commission of Audit, strangulation and eventual removal of the NSW IRC, Workers Compensation changes (see my other story in this edition), and Superannuation disputes have become the norm for the NSW Coalition, the main action for us industrially has been (and remains) the O’Farrell government public sector budget cuts.
I say that because many of the issues we face at present are either directly related to, or being used as an excuse as related to, those budget cuts. Significant information is available on the Union web site with the data and history around the cuts, so I won’t dwell on them too much, but members should be aware that we need to remain focussed on the big picture. Station closures (both permanent and retained) are a major issue, but they are a symptom of the budget cuts. The Department’s behaviour on walking away from most agreements with our Union, while undignified and ongoing, is another symptom of the budget cuts. I could go on, but you get the point. Fix the budget cuts and you expose all the symptoms with a view to be able to fight each one on their merit.
We’re focussing our media attention and campaigns with a much tighter and cleaner approach lately, highlighting the budget cuts, their inconsistency, the dangers they pose, and the hypocrisy with which they have been prescribed. We’ve successfully educated the media and the community about how the budget cuts affect both fire services, and can now move to a phase which shows how wrong that is, and how lazy the O’Farrell government characterises ‘frontline’ services’. Our campaign work is starting to ‘self ignite’ debate in the community. The issue is being talked about on social networking sites, and the public (and firefighters) are engaging with each other with knowledge on the issue. The media are seeking info without us sending out press releases, and I even saw our issue raised on the ABC TV’s Q and A recently. That’s encouraging, and a sign that we are making progress.
The October fires showed cracks in the government’s position on the fire budget cuts, and showed the weaknesses in the Department’s decision to close fire stations to achieve those cuts – not just on hot days, but any day. Firefighters know it’s only a matter of time before something happens, and so does the Union. However, we need to be clear as a Union that our battle around the budget cuts is not only about closing fire stations, it’s about the job losses and/or wages and conditions that will come because of the budget cuts too. Make no mistake, station closures are just the start. The next phase will be very industrial, and very ugly. It is for those reasons that having the budget cuts repealed remains a focus for the Union.
Hostility from this government does not stop at budget cuts. Their push into the working lives and conditions of public sector workers in NSW (like conservative governments right across Australia) has been relentless since day one of the O’Farrell government taking power. They can only blame the ALP history for so long. It is time the NSW public and public sector workers, started holding this government to account for the decisions made on the NSW Coalition government’s watch. Make no mistake, we remain under attack from this government and therefore from our employer. It threatens our wages, our conditions, and more than that – jobs. As Union members, permanent and retained, we should not only consider our own jobs as important, but also jobs for the future. This is a responsibility handed to us by previous generations, to fight to protect, and to hand on to the next generation.
A hostile government has opened the door for senior management to force culture change upon our industry.
It is no coincidence that the Dept have brought in drug and alcohol testing to a workforce where there was little need for reform, bolstered the new ‘workplace standards branch’, amended the Fire Brigade Regulations to suit the employer, and effectively ceased consultation with the FBEU over the last couple of years. There has been a clear change in the behaviour of the Department, often appearing to provoke us into disputes. There is a Government led desire for culture change, and the Department have employed people specifically to implement that. Having said that, the Department’s new IR approach is a bit like the their approach to media and public relations over the last few years – a valiant effort moving from the 80’s into the 90’s, but really, it’s all still a bit stale and tokenistic.
So what does culture change mean to us at station level, and through operational support? Think about the way we have traditionally operated as a team in the workplace. For us, more than most occupations, there is a real need to be able to know each other, trust each other, and look after each other. The upside for us is that as a unionised, cohesive workforce, we stay safe on the job and we can mobilise to defend our rights in a moment’s notice. Many of us have been in the job a long time and we can educate the younger, newer, generation passing on good traditions and the best parts of our culture.
The downside for the employer traditionally is that change (that suits the employer) is harder to achieve. Long term workers cost more and the ‘dreaded Union’ has ultimate control over the workforce. Considering all of that, why wouldn’t an employer want to break that up, change that culture?
Of course, no one denies that best practice requires good policy in areas like drugs and alcohol, conduct and ethics, etc. The point here is that the FBEU has always been at the forefront of these matters and has shown the ability to engage in good faith around assisting to develop and implement good workplace policy. The original drug and alcohol policy and our own support around issues like mental health are good examples of that. So why not maintain a consultative approach to these issues? Instead, we see our employer make significant changes to workplace issues without involving the Union, through disputes and discourse. It not only makes no sense, but proves the Department’s hidden agenda of culture change and the managers put in place to do so. Our Senior management keep saying they want to work with the Union. If that is true, then someone else is running the show. If it’s not true, well so be it but let it be known that NSW firefighters can see through the charade. Our Union continues to defend the best parts of our culture, because unlike politicians and bureaucrats, we have some strong, healthy traditions and a teamwork based culture worth preserving. To allow the boss to dictate how we work together, and how we organise, is to hand over power completely.
Leading the way
Whether it’s leading the public sector rallies last year, or organising the largest firefighting strike this country has ever seen, the FBEU is leading the way.
Unaffiliated to any political party and undeterred by the adversity we face, the FBEU has stood strong throughout, both at a leadership level and through the entire membership. We are seeing renewal and growth in what we do and how we do it.
We have been involved in the win for superannuation increases that the O’Farrell government tried rip out of workers pockets. The Union secured the first wave of testing of the government’s wages policy when we secured a pay increase for retained members carrying out community first responder (CFR) work.
For the first time in our history, we mobilised FBEU firefighters in the south of Sydney to ballot boxes in the Miranda by-election, assisting in the one of the largest swings ever seen against a party in NSW history. The Liberals lost the seat, and our involvement sent shock waves through the labour movement and through NSW politics. See Comrade Nairn’s story on that later in this edition.
While many organisations and Unions have seen problems within, we’ve been running checks and balances through our systems to ensure FBEU members money is spent wisely, and that all our affairs in are in good order. Our banking systems have been strengthened and, as our publicly available audits and financial reports show, the Union is (as Jim Casey recently put it) “frighteningly solvent”.
To further ensure probity and a secure future, our State Committee and key staff have undergone accredited governance training. We’re introducing updated policy and procedures around tendering and procurement, and other key policy areas. In one of our most difficult political times we have moved forward.
Industrially, the joint is on fire, and while everyone else is running out or digging in while responding to this government’s attacks, the FBEU is doing what firefighters do best – we’ve geared up and we’re going in, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder – and just like the workers compensation fire strike and the Miranda by-election, this government never saw us coming. Stay united, permanent and retained.