NSW firefighters prepare for Work Choices struggle

December 2, 2006

Jim Casey was elected senior vice president of the NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) in its May elections. Casey, a socialist, was part of a left ticket of four, running with an ALP member, a syndicalist and a rank-and-file unionist with a history in of activism in the Maritime Union of Australia. The team decided to run an executive ticket of four people, with recommendations for the other nine positions on the committee of management.

Casey told Green Left Weekly, "The election campaign focused on major themes — opening the union up and rebuilding a delegate structure; Work Choices and how to respond to it; and some industry-specific demands. Most fire stations in NSW are staffed 24/7, and there are four shifts at each. This means, essentially, hundreds of small workplaces around the state, and we did our best to visit all of them.

"We found that Work Choices was the key, although there was still a lot of ignorance around the laws, with a minority believing it wouldn't affect them. We tried to connect the need for an improved delegates' structure to what we see as the coming fight, and how our union needs to reorganise", Casey said.

He said that before the new team won office, the union's station delegate structure existed in name only. "It's been a priority to turn that around: we are searching for delegates, encouraging delegate elections at a station level and beginning to train these members."

"Building rank-and-file contingents for the Work Choices demos is also important", Casey continued, "not just for the campaign but also for our internal organising. It gives our delegates a focus, and if we don't have delegates at a particular station it gives us the opportunity to find them." Casey also said the union's new discussion board for members on its website has been been surprisingly successful.

The FBEU is one of the few unions in recent history with very close to 100% membership. Casey said this is due to a number of factors. "Historically, we've had very high density for generations. New firefighters are encouraged to join by their instructors from the first day at the firefighting college. Secondly, the nature of the job — working in teams and the high stakes involved — seems to encourage workplace collectivism."

As for the union's current campaigns, Casey said that health and safety remains important, especially the exposure of members to asbestos at training facilities. He also said and that there's a fight brewing over overtime payments. "Management is under enormous pressure to reduce the overtime bill in the brigade. That could mean station closures, or the downgrading of other resources.

"We may take industrial action over our death and disability cover. There was a long and bitter campaign, between 1999 and 2003, to provide all firefighters with decent cover, and the state government is attempting to renege on that agreement."

The FBEU is covered by a state award, which means that the union is protected from the worst excesses of Work Choices. "As state public sector employees we're covered by the NSW industrial courts. That means we've got a bit more space to organise compared to the federal public sector or private sector workers."

But Casey believes that following the unsuccessful High Court challenge to the Work Choices, the state system's days are numbered. "If the Liberals win the state election [next March], they will wipe out the state IR system. And if the ALP wins, at some point it will more than likely do the same." The FBEU is now looking at how to best manage a transition into the federal system.

The FBEU is a small union, but Casey believes it can still encourage other unions to struggle. "The limited protection we have means we have a responsibility to the rest of the movement to do what we can. We're too small to lead a breakthrough, but we can act as a spark."

Casey believes that the unions should be involved in the protests being planned against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in September 2007 when US George President Bush is in town. "I'm optimistic that the FBEU will be active in the protests around APEC, climate change, as well as our industrial 'bread and butter' — wages and conditions of firefighters", Casey said.

"I'd love to see a contingent from the FBEU, as a part of a big union mobilisation, at the APEC protests. But given it is likely to be near a federal election, there will be enormous pressure from the ALP to minimise 'bad press'."

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