Bosses and bureaucrats block firefighters’ enterprise agreements as bushfire season approaches

UFU state secretary Peter Marshall said the proposed agreements contain "critical entitlements" that are particularly important in what is expected to be a "horrific fire season".

United Firefighters Union (UFU) members employed by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Country Fire Authority (CFA) held meetings to discuss their struggle to win enterprise agreements for their workplaces on August 20.

The proposed new agreements are still being blocked, several years after the expiry of the previous agreements. This is largely due to federal industrial relations legislation that has created a range of obstacles.

CFA and MFB managements have also obstructed attempts to resolve the problems.

In December 2017 the MFB board voted to accept a new agreement for firefighters. The agreement was voted on by MFB staff and put before the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for certification earlier this year.

However, the federal minister for workplace relations subsequently challenged it on the grounds that it supposedly gives too much power to the union.

Kristen Hilton, the head of Victoria's Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, is also opposing the agreement, claiming restrictions on part-time work in the agreement discriminate against women.

UFU state secretary Peter Marshall told Green Left Weekly that the agreement facilitates part-time work for those workers who genuinely require it, but added, "we don't want part-time and casual work to become the norm".

The objections have already delayed a resolution of the dispute for months and are likely to cause further delays.

Meanwhile the new CFA agreement has not yet been put before the FWC, despite the fact that the new CFA board agreed to it in August 2016, after the state government sacked the previous extremely anti-union board.

One obstacle to the CFA agreement is federal legislation giving organisations claiming to represent volunteer firefighters the ability to object to any enterprise agreement if they say it adversely affect volunteers.

Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, which claims to represent CFA volunteers, has opposed the CFA enterprise agreement.

To bypass these obstacles, the UFU has asked the CFA and MFB boards to sign common law deeds containing the same terms and conditions as the two enterprise agreements. Such a deed, under the jurisdiction of the state of Victoria, would protect the conditions from challenge under federal legislation.

This is common practice, but up to now the CFA and MFB boards have refused to sign such deeds.

Marshall told GLW that the proposed agreements contain "critical entitlements such as rostering, shift penalties, security of employment, safe fireground practices and safe staffing".

Such rights are particularly important in what is expected to be a "horrific fire season", where firefighters could be injured or killed.

"Who is protecting the protectors?” he asked.

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