Award negotiations #7

March 2, 2004

In our last update on Friday 20 February we reported having been assured of “another offer being put to us by this coming Monday 23 February, or Tuesday 24 February at the very latest”. As it happened, the Department’s offer finally did arrive – on Thursday.

As expected, the employer’s new offer was confirmed at being 7% over two years – 4% in the first year and 3% in the second. Tied to that offer was a list of some 44 new productivity and efficiency initiatives which had either already been implemented or which the Department expected would be introduced over the next two years. Whilst the State Committee has not dismissed all of the Department’s proposals out of hand, the Union’s officials have rejected that first “formal” wage proposal on the grounds that it offered too little, and expected too much in return. Negotiations continue.

Backpay now guaranteed

The most important breakthrough last week was the agreement we struck that the new award’s first increase in wages and allowances will all (eventually) take effect on and from this coming Friday, 5 March. It follows that whilst it may still take weeks (or possibly even months) to reach a final agreement, members are now guaranteed to receive the first wage increase backdated to 5 March. Equally important is that retiring members can now exit the job on or after 6 March safe in the knowledge that their superannuation benefits will be backdated to reflect the new award’s higher rates of pay.

Sick Leave 

The Commissioner last Friday wrote that “27% of officers take more than 200 hours sick leave per year, while the vast majority do not”. If that is correct (and that is a very big if), then it could not possibly be anything other than a short term trend. Our annual entitlement is only 144 hours, so for every year that a member has accessed 200 hours or more of sick leave there must have been another, previous year where they accessed 100 hours or less. That 27% figure would also have captured long-term injuries (including workers comp), of which even only a handful will completely skew the general average. Of most concern, however, is the Department’s stated intention that “the proposed sick leave protocol would only deal with heavy users of sick leave”. If their 27% figure is to be believed, then the result would be more than 1 in every 4 permanent members being targeted.

On the other hand, and contrary to the Department’s claims, the Union’s proposal was not a “$4M plan”. Its maximum projected cost was closer to $3M, and as low as $1M if that 27% figure is actually anywhere near correct.

Meanwhile, the Department has broken an agreement reached with the Union last year regarding members whose doctor did not state a diagnosis on their medical certificate. When the Union questioned the need for such information, and the employer’s obvious invasion of our members’ privacy, the Department agreed to take no action against such members until the new award’s sick leave provisions had been finalised. However, we’ve recently discovered that the Department is once again writing to those members, threatening them with loss of pay and/or leave if they do not provide another MC containing a diagnosis and/or authorise the Department to speak directly to their doctor.

Management is hiding behind alleged OH&S concerns to justify their actions, but the reality is that it’s just another sick leave stick. The shallowness of their position is exposed by the fact that if you don’t supply another MC then they won’t call you in to see the BMO, they’ll just dock your pay. Any member who receives such a letter is advised not to reply and to contact the Union office asap, as is any member whose pay or leave has been docked.

On a more positive note, we were surprised to read in last week’s “Commish’s Corner” that the Department had offered “to have an increase in unsupported sick leave (no supporting documentation required) to a total of 72 hours per year, of which a maximum of three shifts may be taken consecutively”.

We may have been surprised, but we’re certainly not complaining because the best offer we received prior to last Friday was an increase from 3 to 5 non-MC absences per year. Not only did the single day limit on non-MC’s remain, but the 2 extra non-MC ‘s were to be tied to our agreement that non-MC’s could no longer be used on weekends (which were to be anytime between 1800hrs Friday and 0800hrs Monday). Needles to say our answer was a firm “NO”.

More on “productivity”

As reported above, the Department has offered 4% and 3% wage increases over two years – including an additional 1% for numerous “productivity” initiatives introduced since the 2000 Award. The Department’s letter of offer read (in part):

“It is acknowledged that these benefits have produced efficiencies over and beyond those relevant to the 2000 Award, which I consider should be compensated by a pay increase of 1%.”

Is 1% enough? The answer from your State Committee is yet another firm “NO”.

Now if you or I find something we’d like to buy, but discover we can’t afford it, we put it back on the shelf and move on. The Department’s problem is that it shopped itself stupid over the last 4 four years, loading up its trolley with SABRE, PIPs, SCIDS, CARS, RescueEd and any number of other productivity acronyms, only to now arrive at the checkout counter and find that it can’t afford to pay. Like anyone else, our message to the Department is simple: pay up, or put those initiatives back on the shelf because you can’t afford them.

We are further concerned by the Commissioner’s advice that “this 1% wage increase would be full funded internally by the NSW Fire Brigades”. In other words, the Department is now expected to fund anything above the Government’s own 3% + 3%. Regardless of how hard they might try, it is impossible to dress that up as meaning anything other than a $2M+ cut by the Carr Government to the NSWFB’s annual budget. It’s not on, and here’s why.

A story broke in the Daily Telegraph last Tuesday over cuts in the Brigades’ fleet budget. It was reported (in part) that the FBEU was “furious that the slashed spending will see professional left with equipment up to five years older than that used by the volunteer Rural Fire Service”. The Commissioner duly reassured members via GroupWise that all was well, but is it? We do not dispute that the average of the fleet has fallen dramatically in recent years, nor that a lot of good work has been done on that long-neglected front. However, our reported concern was not for the age of the fleet today, but rather what it might be in 10 years’ time.

The Daily Telegraph sourced its story from a recent NSWFB document which advised that “the working operational life for a service vehicle has been increased to 18 years, with a further 2 years as a Service Exchange Vehicle”. That same document also confirmed a cut to the fleet budget of $2M pa (from $18M to $16M in today’s dollars) by 2010.

Now a $2M pa saving pretty much equates to the cost of a 1% wage increase. We’re not suggesting that the fleet ‘s age has anything to do with this award’s funding, but it does help expose the problem of agreeing to unfunded wage rises. You may think “who cares who funds it?”, but the older trucks, the inferior PPE and the repeated attacks on your conditions which followed would all one day add up to confirm that it was you who paid, not them.

Think of it this way. We can avoid a war today over whether Treasury or the NSWFB funds our wage rises, but we’ll be setting ourselves up for 1000 future battles if we do. Stay United!

Chris Read

State Secretary

Tuesday 2nd March, 2004



Recent news: