Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Behind the CFA dispute

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Confusion, spin and lies billow around the dispute between the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and senior management of the Country Fire Authority (CFA). The union is campaigning to win safer conditions for firefighters and to boost the protection offered to the communities they serve.

Negotiations began over three years ago under the former state Liberal government for a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) to cover career firefighters at the CFA. Under the last employment agreement CFA management wasted $21 million on legal fees to try and remove a number of clauses. The UFU are pushing for stronger clauses less open to legal challenge that give firefighters a say over decisions that affect their safety and efficiency.

A further long term goal of the UFU is the hiring of an additional 350 career firefighters. Only 34 of the CFAs nearly 1200 stations are staffed by both career and volunteer firefighters. These stations protect the urban growth areas on the outskirts of Melbourne like South Morang, Craigieburn and Cranbourne. Major regional cities like Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo are also served by integrated stations. Additional career firefighters would decrease incident response times and offer a higher level of protection to firefighters on the job and to their communities.

Both The Age and Herald Sun newspapers rallied to aid the CFA’s senior management. They portray the dispute as an attempted “union takeover” of the CFA that would allegedly extinguish the role of volunteers. Much of the criticism of the proposed EBA has come from ‘Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria’ (VFBV). The VFBV has been running the same argument against UFU EBA’s since at least 2006. Andrew Ford, CEO and spokesman for VFBV is a former senior corporate manager from the CFA.

Career firefighters are organising via their union to fight for a say in how their workplaces are run, especially issues of safety like the type of protective uniforms provided. Agreement from firefighters through their union on their training, equipment, rosters and methods of operation is not only reasonable but essential.

Firefighters are right to be concerned about their safety. The senior management of both Victorian fire services, the CFA and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, have a long history of hostility to union organisation and both of them cut corners on safety. For example, at the Fiskville training centre the CFA management chose to use cheap carcinogenic chemicals at the facility which caused cancer in many former trainees.

Big business governments have also made decisions that put both firefighters and the public at risk. The former Liberal state government cut $66 million from the budgets of the CFA and the MFB in 2012. In connection with the budget cuts CFA management planned to cut 164 jobs. Minimising funding for emergency services is a priority for the political parties who represent the interests of the rich and powerful. It allows them to reduce taxes and costs to big companies, particularly the insurance corporations.

It was no coincidence that the dispute flared up dramatically in the run up to the federal election. An opportunist cohort of elite establishment figures conspired to try and slander the UFU. The Herald Sun’s political editor, James Campbell, who covered the dispute extensively, is an ex-Liberal Party staffer. The now-sacked CFA board was made up of many ex-insurance industry bosses. One member was also a senior lawyer from the notorious big business law firm King & Wood Mallesons. The ‘Hands Off the CFA’ website is authorised and organised by the Liberal Party.

But the Labor Party can’t be trusted either. The resignation of anti-union emergency services minister Jane Garrett and Daniel Andrews sacking of the CFA board was brought about under intense pressure as UFU members hit the streets to campaign. Fundamentally Labor support the big business domination of society and rule in their interests.

The UFU could further hose down the campaign of their big business opponents by publicly and widely exposing their backgrounds and intent. Big business shouldn’t be allowed to cynically exploit public gratitude and admiration for the essential work of CFA volunteers. All working people should remember that it was struggle by the organised workers that won us our relatively high living standards and quality services in Australia, and must support the campaign of the UFU against corporate interests.

By Kirk Leonard