Mass meetings of members of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) on July 26 voted to endorse in principle two proposed enterprise agreements negotiated with the Victorian state government.
One agreement covers workers employed by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), while the other covers the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
The two agreements provide for pay rises and cover a wide range of other issues including rostering, staffing levels and occupational health and safety.
Negotiations over the MFB agreement have received little media attention, but the CFA agreement has been the subject of alarmist media coverage, especially by the Herald Sun, which claimed that the agreement would ruin the CFA and endanger the state.
During the recent federal election campaign, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised to change the law to block the CFA enterprise agreement. He said the Fair Work Act would be amended to make it illegal for enterprise agreements to contain certain "objectionable terms". He did not specify which aspects of the agreement he considered "objectionable".
Opponents of the proposed enterprise agreement said it would undermine the role of volunteer firefighters. In reality, the agreement deals only with issues affecting paid professional firefighters. One clause says specifically that the role of volunteers is "not altered by this agreement".
Nevertheless, the scaremongering misled some volunteers into participating in protests against the agreement — although other volunteers spoke out in support of the agreement.
There are two types of CFA fire stations. In small rural communities, fire stations are run solely by volunteers. In some larger towns and outer suburbs of Melbourne there are "integrated" fire stations, with both paid permanent staff and unpaid volunteers who report for duty when a fire breaks out.
The proposed CFA enterprise agreement said that in the event of a fire in an area covered by an integrated station, seven professional firefighters are to be dispatched to the fire. Opponents of the agreement claim this means that volunteers cannot start fighting the fire until the seven professional firefighters arrive. This is not the case.
While Turnbull claims he will "defend" CFA volunteers against this non-existent threat, it seems likely that his real objection is to the agreement covering topics he believes should be left solely to management to decide, such as minimum staffing levels, rostering and the number of firefighters to be sent to a fire.