Victorian ambulance workers form new union

Paramedics and ambulance workers in Victoria have formed a new union.

The Victorian Ambulance Union (VAU) registered as an incorporated association after breaking away from United Voice on July 4. Green Left Weekly’s Sarah Hathway spoke to VAU general secretary Danny Hill about why paramedics and ambulance workers decided on this course.

What led to the formation of VAU?

We were originally the Ambulance Employees Australia, Victorian branch (AEAV), and amalgamated in 1993 with United Voice (UV), previously known as the Liquor Hospitality Miscellaneous Workers’ Union or “Misos”. We were a part of that union but, in Victoria, we kept our own subsection. In other states, the Ambulance Employees Australia is part of UV. Our members have always identified with Ambulance Employees Australia, even after the merger with UV.

We found out last year that UV was planning to merge with the National Union of Workers (NUW) to form a super union. We were originally excited, and wanted to be part of the discussion about how it all happened.

We wrote to UV seeking an opportunity to strengthen our subsection to give us more autonomy and more resources. We were led to believe that would happen. But it didn’t. We were left out of those discussions and removed from the rules altogether.

A Victorian State Council meeting, with about 38 members from different sections of Ambulance, were pretty angry. We met Jess Walsh UV’s Victorian secretary at the time and asked some tough questions. On her suggestion, we told the UV national office about being unhappy with the merger and asked for copy of the new rules. We also said we wanted to continue to run as an independent sub-branch. After a number of exchanges that was refused.

The UV national office finally provided us with a copy of the rules and met with us. Our state councilors were not impressed. About 10 resigned over a few months. But, they had organised their own break-away unincorporated association which they presented to the remaining state councillors on June 12, our last meeting as the AEA.

All the state councillors resigned and we decided to resign as well.

Since then we have reformed as the VAU and we have joined 2750 members in about two weeks.

What are VAU’s goals?

Our short-term goal is to get back to basics and represent the members, remind them that they can lean on us if they’re in trouble at 2am. Getting a new union set up is obviously a challenge and we’re trying to do that as quickly as we can.

Our medium-term goal is to rebuild our membership back to what it was. We had 98% density among our paramedic work force and we want that again. We are at about 72% now. Given how we’re going I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up with more members than we did previously in UV.

Do you see VAU as being in direct competition with the soon-to-be United Workers Union (UWU), or do you think the UWU will see you as competition?

I don’t feel there’s a lot of competition from them and we’re not interested in a tit-for-tat competition. We’ve been careful not to shit-can them. Our agenda is to provide a good service to our members: we are a service union. We have been reassured by feedback from our members. I haven’t had one member against it.

How have other unions responded?

We’ve had nothing but support. It’s often a sensitive topic for unions, but most know that the paramedics are a strong collective who stick together and they see this as the paramedics making a choice.

We met with Tim Kennedy [NUW national secretary] and others from UV since our decision. Kennedy was very open, and I look forward to working with him. HSU Victoria Branch 3 [VAHPA] has offered us office space.

The media refers to the formation of VAU and the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) as “rebel unions”. What’s your response?

I’ll wear that proudly, as long as you’re doing what your members want. If you’re not regarded as a rebel once in a while you’re not trying hard enough. For me “going rogue” is going against your members. But someone else calling you “renegade” is a badge of honour.

What are some of the pressing issues for VAU now?

We’re in bargaining with Ambulance Victoria and, so far, the negotiations on wages and conditions are going well. We have ongoing problems related to resourcing. There’s also the mental health of paramedics. We have major issues in the non-emergency patient transport sector, which is highly casualised. These workers aren’t supported and they don’t have safe workplaces.

We also want to secure improvements for administration and clerical staff who make the work that paramedics do possible.

The ambulance sector is unpredictable: each day, there’s a new issue and we need to make sure we’re prepared for that.

Is there anything you want VAU to do differently?

Beyond providing industrial support, we want a focus on clinical support. We haven’t had the resources to do that in the past. We want to set up continuing professional development for paramedics and ambulance worker members and better access to journal articles.

What is VAU’s position on affiliation to the ALP?

It’s a question for all of our members, and you have to be democratic about it. More of our members are politically diverse: members in country seats are probably conservatively aligned compared to members in different parts of Melbourne.

I’ve got my own views that affiliation would be a good thing for our members as it’s a powerful way to lobby for improvements that will benefit them.

But I think the most important point is that the decision has to be made democratically.

[Follow the progress of the Victorian Ambulance Union here or here.]