Unions act to help bushfire victims

February 15, 2009

As soon as the devastation of the Victorian bushfires became known, unions began organising to help bushfire victims.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates donated $250,000 to the national bushfire appeal on February 9.

As Green Left Weekly goes to print, the Union Bushfire Emergency Response has raised $1,345,500. This includes $1 million donated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining Energy Union.

The union movement internationally has been donating money with US$20,000 coming from the United Steelworkers (USA) and 10,000 Euros from Public Services International.

In Victoria, the building industry unions are organising blood donations, teams of volunteers and collections on building sites.

Many unions have members badly affected by the bushfires, many who have lost homes and some who have lost their lives.

Fosters brewery in Melbourne heartlessly sacked three Country Fire Authority firefighters from their maintenance jobs at Fosters, while the men were out fighting fires. Unions are resisting attempts by Fosters to outsource maintenance to contractor ABB.

The Gippsland Trades and Labour Council (TLC) had already been organising support for the victims of earlier fires in the region before the huge firestorm hit on February 7.

Gippsland TLC secretary John Parker told GLW that it is now building a database of people who need help and a database of volunteers and their skills to help with the rebuilding process.

The Australian Education Union is organising immediate financial assistance of $5000 for members who have lost their homes as well as $5000 for each of the AEU sub-branches in the three schools which burned down.

Geelong Trades Hall is organising members into relief teams to help with the clean-up and repairs.

John Parker said that another role that Gippsland TLC will play, as part of its community unionism approach, is to advocate on behalf of the community.

Bushfire victims are already having to battle Centrelink, the banks, insurance companies and government bureaucracies. The Gippsland TLC is offering help with these issues to bushfire victims.

Unions are also warning that the current devastation must not be compounded by insurance companies using untrained people to clear the burnt-out remains of houses.

Many of the houses were built with asbestos. That asbestos is now dislodged. If untrained contractors let that asbestos escape into the air, then many of the survivors of the bushfires may be exposed to the deadly material.

Some unions have also indicated they will advocate fighting climate change in order to prevent the increasing frequency and intensity of bushfires.

United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall wrote in the February 12 Age that "we will be fighting more fires unless we tackle the problem's source."

"Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

"Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020", Marshall said.

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