CONSUMING ALCOHOL ON SHIFT – DISCIPLINARY ACTION AGAINST MEMBERS
March 13, 1996
All members would be aware of the Commissioner’s Bulletin titled “Consuming Alcohol on Shift” dated 7th March, 1996. In that bulletin the Commissioner takes a very strong stand against drugs and alcohol in the workplace, a position shared by the Union. On the basis of members’ health and safety alone, the Union agrees that there is simply no room for the consumption of drugs and alcohol within the operations of a professional fire service – permanent and retained members alike.
However, the Union and Commissioner disagree greatly on exactly how to tackle the question. The Commissioner has offered “sympathetic assistance” to those with a genuine problem, but has threatened a big disciplinary stick for others who offend. The Union believes that prohibition (of anything, at any stage in history) has never worked, and that it will again fail in the Brigades if this is their only answer. The Union fears this sort of approach will only drive whatever problem may exist back into hiding, rather than removing it altogether.
The Commissioner has also referred to discussions between the Union and Department on a draft Drug and Alcohol Policy, stating that “we need a speedy resolution and I am determined that this will occur.” The fact is that the draft he referred to is the Union’s draft which was served on the Department over 18 months ago! That draft is based on rehabilitation and education rather than discipline because the Union knows that nothing will change until the cultural attitude of firefighters changes. The Department certainly won’t change attitudes through heavy handed discipline. The Union started the D&A Policy ball rolling, and we’ll continue to see it through in the interests of our members’ health and safety. Any final Policy will of course be subject to approval by the rank and file through a General Meeting.
Whilst opposing the use of drugs and alcohol on shift, the Union does not apologise for defending its three members charged in Newcastle. When the “two officers” initially agreed to having their complaints investigated, nobody expected the Department would be using covert video surveillance and private investigators against them, as well as launching Rambo-style raids on members’ workplaces. The Union couldn’t tolerate the hypocrisy of management and their vindictive, calculated targeting of individual members in this instance. Big Brother surveillance, Gestapo raids and military court-martials have no place in the NSWFB.
A concerted defence of all three members has been mounted over the past six months, including the full time assistance of the Union’s Senior Industrial Officer and the Union engaging a defence Barrister for Departmental hearings and GREAT appeals. More importantly, several mass meetings of rank and file members continually restated their support for those charged, leading to strike action by the Newcastle Sub-Branch on several occasions, including the entire Newcastle Sub-Branch rank and file walking off the job on 9/2/96 at 1630hrs in protest. The Newcastle Sub-Branch quite legitimately sought the widening of the dispute statewide, however the State Committee of Management met 8/3/96 and considered the recommendations of the Newcastle Sub-Branch meeting of 6/3/96. The Sub-Branch recommendations were thoroughly debated, with the State Committee of Management having to consider all information and advice before it in order to make a decision considered to be in the best interest of all Union members. That State Committee of Management’s resolution follows immediately below:
“That this meeting condemns the Commissioner for his punitive and reactionary stance with regard to the three members charged over Regulation breaches in Newcastle. The Union rejects the penalties as being severe, unjust and inconsistent with the Department’s previous handling of such Regulation breaches.
However, this meeting notes that the Union has explored every possible avenue of defence for its members, including the dedication of the Union’s Senior Industrial Officer and engagement of legal Counsel on their behalf. Further, every legal avenue – both Departmental and external -has been explored to its fullest and the Union consistently pressured the Department to revue its position. This has resulted in the reinstatement of those members originally suspended, and the reduction from the Department’s initially stated intention to dismiss all three from the Brigades. Further Union pressure has lead to a reduction down from demotion to S/F for two years to the final demotion to L/F for six months for the Station Officer member, as well as the demotion to L/F for two years being finally reduced to demotion to S/O for two years for the Inspector member. A concession has presently been secured whereby the demoted Inspector may remain in Newcastle, again against the Department’s initially stated intentions to remove that member to Sydney. The third member charged, who is facing a fine of $800, has continued to maintain his innocence and his final avenue of appeal lies with GREAT, assisted by the Union’s legal Counsel.
The Union is resigned to accepting that law and justice are not one and the same, and that its members have been unjustly treated through a matter riddled with hypocrisy and worse, the invasion of member’s civil liberties through covert surveillance by the employer. The Union notes that such civil liberty issues are presently the subject of review and amendment by the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, in order to prevent such surveillance recurring. That surveillance stands condemned by the rank and file at General Meetings of the Union. To this point, the Union is again to demand the acceptance by the Department that no further surveillance of workplaces or members shall be undertaken, with the State Committee of Management to consider further action in support of this position should such acceptance not be forthcoming.
The State Committee of Management applauds the comrades of the Newcastle Sub-Branch for their various actions in the support and defence of the members charged. The State Committee of Management notes the militant action, including continued strike action, which it believes has consistently strengthened the Union’s position, and that the Newcastle Sub-Branch presently has bans in place. Throughout the dispute, the Newcastle Sub-Branch actions have been endorsed by the Union’s elected officials and remain commendable, however the Union now believes all possible legal and industrial avenues have been exhausted.
Accordingly, the State Committee of Management determines that the most favourable outcome possible in their defence has now been achieved, despite the firm and continued view that a gross injustice has occurred. The legal processes have worked against the Union and its members in this instance, with the only alternative – being to continue to agitate industrially – potentially compromising the Union’s collective rank and file through what could only be very negative publicity from the conservative and sensational press.
All bans currently in place are to be lifted 0800 hours, Saturday 9th March, 1996 and the members charged are advised to accept the penalties, as amended by Union agitation, with the exception of the member pleading innocent whose final position shall be determined by GREAT. On this point, the State Committee of Management believes that any escalation of industrial action as sought by the Newcastle Sub-Branch may in fact prejudice those proceedings, in which the Union is presently confident of success.
Finally, that the Commissioner again stand condemned as a reactionary and vindictive ideologue, and that the rank and file be called upon to maintain unity in the face of what has been a painful and difficult matter for all. The State Committee of Management believes this decision to be ultimately in the best interests of all members – including those members charged – based upon the balance and consideration of all information available to it, and places on record that this decision has been amongst the hardest ever for the Union’s elected officials to take.”
The State Committee of Management was forced to recognise that the best possible defence had already been mounted by the Union, although it remains clearly disgusted by the Department’s handling of this matter. What could in effect have provided a win-win situation for all in terms of the wider drug and alcohol question has now resulted in stalemate and conflict.
This clearly isn’t the way to tackle such a sensitive and complex issue and accordingly, the Union will continue to press the Department for agreement on a Policy understood and accepted by all.
Wednesday 13th March, 1996