History of the FBEU

The FBEU was formed in an era when a number of important unions were established. Workers in Australia came to realise that their only hope of achieving better quality of life was by joining together in an association representative of their common interests.

Our Union has continued to pursue those goals originally set by our founding members.  We have not adopted a narrow parochial approach and realise that national and international questions impact on firefighters’ future welfare. Because of this, the Union is held in high esteem within the Trade Union Movement.

Although the leadership of the Union and their principal adversary (the management of the NSW Fire Brigades) has changed over the last 90 years, the relative positions of both parties has remained the same.

Throughout the many bitter struggles the Union has continued to seek better conditions of employment and job satisfaction for its members while the Fire Brigade endeavours to fulfil its responsibilities in providing fire protection for the community at the cheapest possible price. Thus the class struggle between the worker and employer continues.

FBEU History - Rally outside Parliment House 1938 Founding Members of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, 1911.

Standing immediately to the right of the standard is the first President, Charles Butcher.


Key Dates in the History of the FBEU

1910 – The Union formed – the first known trade union of firefighters in the world.

1911 – Officially registered as the Fire Brigade Employees Union of NSW, but officers excluded.

1913 – Union won firefighters’ first industrial award, which reduced permanent firefighters’ weekly hours from 168 to 138 and set out retained firefighters’ conditions.

1922 – Name changed to Fire Brigades Association of NSW, but officers remained excluded.

1923 – Union forced a further reduction in firefighters’ weekly hours to 120, but officers stayed on 138.

1927 – Union campaigning secured a further reduction to an 84-hour week and two-platoon system.

1931 – Despite opposition from the firefighters’ Association, a NSW Fire Brigade Officers’ Association was established.

FBEU members Rally 1938 FBEU members rally outside Parliament House in 1938 for shorter working hours.

1938 – A NSW parliamentary select committee which recommended a 52.5 hour week for firefighters was ignored. Instead, firefighters were awarded a 78 hour week and Officers dropped to 112.

1943 – Fire Brigade Officers’ Association voted in principle to amalgamate with the firefighters’ Association. The first federal conference of unions representing firefighters was held.

1944 – Union agitation forced legislation delivering a 56-hour week. The Union’s first strike, concerning the issue of personal protective equipment, was successful.

1945 – Officers Association’s first strike over 56-hour week had eventual success.

1948 – Officers’ and firefighters’ Associations formally amalgamated and were registered under the new (and current) title of NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU). Officers joined firefighters on strike for the first time, over pay.

1949 – Splinter group of senior officers formed a Senior Officers’ Association, independent of the new FBEU. Union activist M. Stolmack became the first permanent firefighter on the NSW Board of Fire Commissioners (the Board).

1951 – The Union applied to the Industrial Commission for a 40 hour week.

1953 – The Board moved to have the Union deregistered and fined over a limited-duties strike for a 40-hour week.

1955 – NSW parliament legislated for a 40-hour week for firefighters. Disputes over its implementation led to an 11-day strike during which the Union was fined and temporarily deregistered.

1960 – A limited-duties strike led to a fine and deregistration for 28 days, but broke the wage into component parts. After a six-year legal battle, the Industrial Commission confirmed the Union’s right to cover retained firefighters.

1963 – For the first time all firefighters from Acting Chief Officer down held a partial 24-hour stoppage. The Union secured a separate award for retained members. Following the death of a firefighter, the Union stepped up its campaign for compressed air breathing apparatus.

1964 – After a long Union campaign, safer poly-carbonate helmets replaced archaic brass.

FBEU members at work 1968 FBEU members at work: the Buckinghams fire – Oxford St, Sydney, ANZAC Day 1968.

1969 – The United Firefighters’ Union of Australia (UFUA) was first registered, but the FBEU withdrew its support complaining of undemocratic rules.

1970 – The High Court ruled the UFUA could not be registered because firefighting was (incorrectly) ruled not to be an industry.

1972 – A series of strikes over wage claims caused the Board to lodge an application for the Union’s deregistration.

1973 – Members voted to press for the 10/14 roster (two 10-hour days, two 14-hour nights and four days off).

1973-74 –  A series of further strikes over wage claims led to major gains for members.

1975 – The NSW Industrial Commission awarded the 10/14 roster. The Senior Officers’ Association and FBEU formally amalgamated, finally making the FBEU the one industrial union for all NSW firefighters.

1977 – Union protests led the Labor government to place the Board of Fire Commissioners under ministerial control.

1978 – Stoppage and bans over obsolete equipment forced the government to form a major Committee of Inquiry into the NSW Fire Brigades.

1979 – Union won its ‘unavoidable risks’ case, with a new flat allowance awarded.

1982 – Members voted to press for a 38-hour week.

1983 – Following intense Union pressure, the government agreed to minimum staffing of Station Officer plus three firefighters in all stations.

1985 – Limited duties strike succeeded in forcing agreement on the introduction of the 38-hour week.

1987 – A threatened staffing freeze was overturned under the threat of industrial action.

1989 – The conservative Greiner government announced the dissolution of the Board of Fire Commissioners, which was replaced by a government department, the NSW Fire Brigades.

1990 – The UFUA was successfully registered with the full support of the FBEU. The Union won a 15 year struggle for new protective fire tunics, replacing the firefighters’ century-old ‘lion-tamers suit’.

1994 – Industrial action, with the threat of escalation, forced the conservative Fahey government to meet Union demands for a 13% wage increase without trade-offs.

1996 – Threat of industrial action led to the opening of first new 10/14 station in more than a decade. Agreement with the Labor government for a new construction and staffing program, the largest since the 1920Ís.

1997 – The Union secured major gains for retained members, including a single rate of pay for all work performed, as part of a successful 18% wage campaign for all firefighters.

1999 – The Union launched an industrial campaign to secure improved Death and Disability benefits for newer members. Industrial action commenced with a march on Parliament House. Campaign for staffing in regional centres results in the implementation of full time staffing for 12 regional fire stations.

2000 – Frequent bouts of industrial action over Death and Disability benefits involving the first state wide stoppages of members since the early 1980’s. The Union secures 17% wage increase.

2001 – The Union ends an 80 year long association with the Australian Labor Party voting to disaffiliate after Carr Government refuses adequate Death and Disability benefits for members and slashes benefits available under Workers Compensation.

2003 – The Union secures Death & Disability Award after a four year campaign.