Update – Command and Control
July 29, 2007
Negotiations between the Department and the Union on Friday 27th July have seen substantial progress made with Assistant Commissioner Benson managing to steady the ship and move negotiations forward in a productive and conciliatory manner. While the matter of command and control still requires resolution, firefighters can enjoy some temporary certainty thanks to an interim position established by the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) with further meetings scheduled to take place over the coming weeks and a report back to the IRC within the next two weeks.
While the Unions bans have been lifted and the Department is now finally talking about the matter of command and control the Commissioners nefarious attempt to ‘provide a balanced view’ cannot go unanswered. In order to better understand what caused this latest hostility and the likely outcome members need to be aware of the context around which the dispute is framed.
The current Union administration was voted into office in the midst of a very public spat between the Union and the Department after agreement was reached to adopt a Public Safety Training Package (PSTP) regime for junior permanent firefighters. At that time the Commissioner attempted to renege on payment after agreement had been reached and then implored members to ignore a bans instruction issued by the Union. The Department misrepresented the industrial action as an attempt by the then State Secretary to get himself elected rather than enforce payment agreed to by the Department.
The Union leadership team was spilled and a new Union administration elected into office in May 2006. In the fifteen months the current Union leadership has been in office the Union has seen a relatively harmonious industrial environment with ban imposed on only two occasions – when the Department attempted to moth ball the only appliance available to the retained members at Penrith fire station and when the Department refused to remove carcinogenic foam concentrate from appliances as a matter of urgency. In both these instances bans were only imposed when the Department refused to give these issues sufficient credence. When these matters were tested in the courts the Union was vindicated in having pushed the Department off the fence.
Clearly and demonstrably the Union is conscious of and judicious in the use of industrial action to achieve its required outcomes. Members can draw their own conclusions about the Commissioners behaviour in this respect in light of the militancy demonstrated by the Union when he sat on its committee of management. No such allegations were then being hurled at the Union for its use of industrial bans and limitations and nor should they be now. Industrial action is a legitimate and necessary tactic from time to time in industrial disputes, if we did not use it judiciously the Union could negotiate with management until the cows came home and still have no result.
The reason the Union imposed bans and limitation on Thursday 26th July was again to force the Department off the fence and get it to put in writing the minimum rank required to take control when permanent firefighters work with retained. Ironically we were forced to take industrial action to force management to manage. In this instance the Union sought and now appears to have reached at least interim agreement that no lessor rank than senior firefighter will be compelled to take charge. Sadly it has taken the IRC and all of its authority to make the Department finally state its bottom line in what is the most fundamental issue of fire ground safety.
For all the hype, the sledging and the misrepresentation about this dispute the Union has asked a simple unambiguous and crucially important question. It is a ludicrous proposition that the Department should refuse to nominate who is in charge of a fire brigade. This position is not only dangerous for firefighters and the general public but it is also an outrageous abrogation of duty to not state clearly and simply who is in charge.
The Department has chosen not to establish policy on who is in charge and inform its employees because it is happy to play members of the FBEU off against each other and watch the discussion and debate degenerate to a stage where members are now demanding that the Union establish who is in charge. It is a shabby look for the Commissioner to stand back and watch the chaos and confusion generated by a lack of clear and accountable leadership. It is another thing altogether to use an absence of policy and an inability to secure additional jobs as the basis upon which to divide firefighters in the run up to a major wage campaign.
The threat implicit in the Commissioners latest notice is that this dispute will be cast as an internal Union dispute over the allocation of overtime. This will serve no ones interests other than the employers should we choose to launch a campaign for wages and conditions in the near future. Ironically if the Department were doing its job properly it would have increased recruitment to a level required to fill vacant positions and increased the remuneration of retained firefighters to stop their exodus.
The current Union leadership has tried hard to establish a cooperative and mutually beneficial working relationship with the Department. The Union has offered to work with management to help reduce its costs but been snubbed when the Department lost its ticker. The Union has offered flexibility to the rostering system to deliver more opportunities for members and the Union has supported the entire upper management restructure but apparently this hasn’t been enough.
The latest message from the Commissioner shouldn’t be looked at in isolation, this is the third successive State Secretary of the FBEU that this Commissioner has attacked publicly and this time he has gone too far. The Commissioner has made a series of allegations that are simply untrue. However what is most disturbing in relation to this notice, is the fact that the Commissioner has misrepresented the content of telephone conversations that occur on an on going and regular basis between the two parties. In effect the Commissioner has now put the Union in a position whereby it must presume that any and all content of conversations between the State Secretary and the Commissioner will now be published on the Departments web site in a form that at best will be without context, and at worse outright misrepresentation.
Clearly this is an untenable situation and has done nothing more than marginalise the Commissioner in that little if anything can now be discussed “off the record” prior to public announcement or agreement. This most irrational of behaviour has set back relations between the Department and the Union at the very time that we all need the Commissioner telling the Minister and the Treasurer how poorly paid and deserving of substantially more money all firefighters are.
We don’t need the Commissioner to launch smoke detector programs, we don’t need him to open new fire station, we certainly don’t need him to play politics with the Unions democratic process. What we do need him to do is what he’s paid for – to provide leadership and direction by nominating the minimum permanent rank required to take control of a retained brigade.