Firefighters negotiate new agreement

Firefighter's union secretary Peter Marshall.

The board of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) has voted to support a proposed new enterprise agreement negotiated with the United Firefighters Union (UFU). The agreement will now be put to a vote of MFB staff.

The document includes clauses requiring management to consult the union over a range of issues, including equipment and uniforms. It safeguards firefighters’ pay, conditions and rosters. It ensures safe staffing levels and safe work practices. It also establishes a joint union/management committee to promote diversity.

UFU state secretary Peter Marshall told Green Left Weekly the agreement is “a good outcome for firefighters and the community”. He said Fair Work Australia, which examined the operation of consultation in the MFB, found it produced better results than unilateral management decision making.

The previous enterprise agreement expired in 2013. The main obstacle to a new agreement was disagreement over the consultation provisions. MFB management, which had a history of hostility to the union, held out against the proposed agreement.

The Victorian Labor government allowed this situation to continue for several years, resulting in protest action by the union.

Eventually the government decided to support the agreement and some of the most intransigent MFB management personnel resigned, enabling the enterprise agreement to be signed.

Meanwhile, the proposed enterprise agreement for the Country Fire Authority (CFA) remains stalled.

The CFA covers rural areas, where it uses volunteer firefighters. But it also covers regional cities and some outer suburbs of Melbourne, where it employs professional firefighters, with volunteers playing a supplementary role.

The proposed CFA enterprise agreement covering paid firefighters includes consultation provisions similar to those in the MFB agreement. The former CFA board opposed these provisions, and was eventually sacked.

However, there is an additional obstacle to the adoption of the CFA agreement. Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, an organisation claiming to represent volunteer firefighters (but headed by a highly paid CEO), has objected to the agreement.

A law adopted by the federal Coalition government in 2016 gives such organisations the power to block enterprise agreements covering paid staff in emergency service bodies such as the CFA.

The Victorian government has tried to overcome this obstacle by restructuring the fire services, separating paid and volunteer firefighters into two separate organisations, but this legislation has been blocked in the state upper house.

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