The ‘productivity’ debate

December 3, 2003

It is deeply disappointing that the Commissioner yesterday chose to attack the Union’s officials rather than to address the real issue in question, which is the employer’s continued refusal to recognise any of your new roles or responsibilities during these negotiations. I’ll say no more on that than to flatly deny that the Union’s officials are liars (which was the direct implication of his numerous references to “inaccurate assertions” and “untruths”), and to observe that such remarks will in no way help to resolve this dispute.

On the central question of “productivity”, Commissioner Mullins has argued that the Union should “facilitate and measure, rather than oppose, positive change”. He went on to add that “If such a philosophy were adopted there would be quantifiable changes at Award time that both the Union and Department [could] discuss as justification for pay rises.”

Contrary to the Commissioner’s assertions, the Union actually wrote to the Government at the conclusion of the last award negotiations to offer (in part) as follows:

“The Union will agree to continue to jointly explore opportunities for increased efficiency and productivity and, in specific instances, may agree that it is appropriate to implement certain initiatives within the life of this agreement. However, such initiatives will not be tied to, nor considered part of this agreement and it will therefore be open to the Union to seek appropriate recognition of any such initiatives in subsequent Award negotiations.”
(Union to Premier’s Department, 20 April 2000, re award negotiations)

And in a letter jointly signed by the-then NSWFB Commissioner and the Director-General of the NSW Premier’s Department, the Government replied with this undertaking:

“The Brigades undertakes to work with your Union to identify the changes, which both parties accept as productivity/efficiency improvements, and to work toward jointly quantifying any monetary or intangible benefits. These would include improving safety and reducing environment, economic and community impacts of emergency incidents and rescue activities.

The parties agree to to jointly explore opportunities for increased efficiency and productivity during the term of any Memorandum of Understanding entered into. In specific instances, the parties may agree that it is appropriate to implement certain initiatives within the life of the awards and any Memorandum of Understanding entered into.

Notwithstanding that it is difficult to quantify some of the ‘intangible’ benefits (in hard dollar terms) of some of these changes, we acknowledge the significant benefits which would accrue to the community and the Brigades through their adoption, and will work with your Union to develop a methodology by which ‘productivity’ can be measured and appropriately acknowledged.”
(Premier’s Department to Union, 3 May 2000, re award negotiations)

It should be clear from the Commissioner’s quotes and these correspondence extracts that what the Union offered (and what the Government clearly accepted) four years ago is exactly the same approach that Commissioner Mullins is advocating now.

Our problem is that we did just that, yet the Department is now flatly refusing to recognise any of those productivity/efficiency initiatives.

As every member will know, the job has changed a lot in the last 4 short years. There have been a wave of new initiatives introduced by management over that time, almost all of which were negotiated with and accepted by the Union on the shared understanding that they would be recognised come this current award round. Indeed, in several instances the Union actually sought and gained the Department’s written agreement that it would recognise these initiatives, as demonstrated by the following two examples:

“It is acknowledged that the proposed reporting duties are new, and that the CARS project is a productivity initiative. Accordingly, it is understood that the NSW Fire Brigade Employees’ Union may wish to refer to this project during future award negotiations.”

(Department to Union, 22 August 2002, re the Community Activity Reporting System)

“It is acknowledged that ICMS is a new system of work that will need to be taken into consideration in terms of productivity savings for award purposes.”
(Department to Union, 21 March 2003, re the new Incident Crew Management System)

If only it were true. When we “referred to” CARS, we were quickly told that it produced no “hard dollar” savings and was therefore worthless. And when ICMS was “taken into consideration”, we were told that it wasn’t worth a cent. The same fate has befallen all of the many other new roles and responsibilities taken on by members over the last four years.

The Union has facilitated change, but the Department is refusing to acknowledge it. Far from opposing change, we played their game and we’re now being burnt because we did.

Commissioner Mullins yesterday also offered that “if ANY union wants more than the offered 6%, it must … mount a full-blown work value case in the Industrial Relations Commission, or agree to ‘hard dollar’ cost offsets.”

Pardon? What happened to the “quantifiable changes at Award time that both the Union and the Department [could] discuss as justification for pay rises”? If the Commissioner is “bewildered by the Union’s actions”, then we are equally confused by his mixed messages on productivity.

It’s worth referring at this point to the Government’s official wages policy:

“… the Government will seek to maintain the real value of wages. This implies wage rises of around 3 percent a year. The Government will not tie these wage increases to any improvements in productivity or efficiency. Public sector reforms will be pursued outside wage agreements.”
(Budget Statement 2003-04, NSW Treasury, May 2003)

The most disturbing aspect of this policy is to be found in that last line: “Public sector reforms will be pursued outside wage agreements.” The Government is really saying that it will continue to expect us to take on more work, but it’s no longer prepared to pay us for doing so.

Our current bans are not simply about the SOGS or PPVs – they were merely the latest initiatives the Department wanted to implement without recognition. No, the real issue here is about where your future wage rises will come from. If the Union continues to allow new work routines to be introduced without first agreeing on their productivity worth, then we can also forget about any future wage rises above CPI.

Yes, negotiation is the way forward – but it can’t work unless the Department brings more to the bargaining table than the meagre “no-strings” 6% presently on offer. Stay United!

Chris Read
State Secretary