What happened and why

January 27, 2008

As members would be aware our current permanent firefighters Award will expire on February 23rd 2008 (the retained Award expires 31st March 2008). Under NSW law all of our wages and conditions will remain in place until a new Award (including new rates of pay) replaces it. The Union has been negotiating with the Department and Government since September last year for an Award that improves our conditions and increases our wages. This process has involved close to twenty separate meetings most lasting about three hours.

Whist some progress has been made no agreement has been reached on most issues because the Government has been insisting that any increase in wages over 2.5% per year must come from within the NSWFB budget. Government claims that 2.5% is the current long-term rate of inflation and that a 1% increase in firefighters wages will cost it $4.6 million. The Union disagrees on both these points, we argue inflation is running at 3.5% and when last we negotiated wages the cost of a 1% increase was less than $3 million. Put simply the Union believes that the Government is trying to short change firefighters – and that’s just not fair.

To narrow down the differences between the Union and Government the FBEU wrote to the Minister for Emergency Services on December 6th seeking his support in having the starting point for all wage increases raised from 2.5% per year to 3.5% per year – a figure that the Union argues represents the current rate of inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. At the same time the Union has continued negotiations with the Department and tried to flush out the real cost of wage increases.

With negotiations going nowhere the Union wrote to the Commissioner on January 4th seeking his support for a joint approach between the Union and the Department for an exemption to the wages policy. The Commissioner wrote back on January 14th and put an offer to the Union to settle the wage claim that included a grab bag of conditions in exchange for a three year Award of 4% per year. Whilst the Departments position was clearly unacceptable an offer was finally on the table and negotiations were now moving forward.

The very next day the Union again wrote to the Commissioner offering to accept an increase of 4% per year for three years – provided the Department continued to contribute 13% of its permanents wage bill toward superannuation. Currently every time members of the older more generous superannuation schemes leave the job, the Department reduces its overall superannuation costs. In effect the Union is now demand those savings should be put back into members superannuation and not skimmed off by Treasury.

With the Unions full State Committee of Management due to meet on the 24th and 25th of January the Commissioner again wrote back to the Union rejecting the Unions position and indicating that what the Union Secretary had offered fell short by almost $20 million. Soon after the rejection of the Unions offer to settle the dispute, a response from Treasury was then delivered to the Union reinforcing the hard line taken by Government. The Union was now in a position where every message from the Premiers office and the Commissioner Mullins office had unequivocally ruled out any increase over 2.5% unless the budget could be cut. The response from Treasury signed personally by the Treasurer locked Government into that position and explicitly rejected the Union’s offer to settle the dispute.

Concerned that the Union may not understand the Governments position a delegation from the Treasury and the Premiers Office were invited to explain to the Unions State Committee of Management exactly what the Government meant in its correspondence to the Union.

On Thursday January 24th the State Committee of Management met and fully and frankly debated the position reached in negotiations. It listened to the Governments position, asked questions to confirm what the Union was being told and fully explored all options open to the membership. The next morning the Union’s State Committee of Management reconvened and again considered its position. The State Committee of Management then resolved that with negotiations deadlocked a stopwork meeting of onduty members in the GSA should be called so that the rank and file could consider where to take the dispute.

The stopwork meeting was updated on wage negotiations and informed that the Union had been told no back pay would be paid unless the NSW cabinet specifically exempted it. The members were then presented with a plan to take the wage campaign forward. The meeting subsequently voted unanimously to empower the State Secretary to take whatever steps necessary to bring the dispute to a conclusion.

Immediately prior to the stopwork meeting the Department applied for an urgent hearing before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission on the basis of a fear that the Union would take industrial action over the disgraceful manner in which members attached to the Nowra brigade have been treated. The Judge hearing that dispute was able to cut through the Department’s confusion and by 2:30 pm had convened a hearing to consider the dispute. With Commissioner Mullins, his barrister and his highly paid entourage facing down a handful of FBEU representatives the Judge quickly cut to the chase offered her assistance in resolving the dispute.

With the impasse in negotiations now broken the Unions President has called a further meeting of the State Committee of Management for Friday February 1st. It is highly likely that the Unions State Committee will be calling a Special General Meeting of members on Friday February 22nd the day before the permanent firefighters Award concludes, all members are urged to attend this meeting.

Friday’s stop work meeting was the first strike this Union has held since 2001. It didn’t happen in isolation and it was only called as a last resort after the State Committee of Management considered it absolutely necessary. The stop work meeting has now put negotiations back on track and demonstrated exactly why Unions need to exercise the right to take industrial action judiciously. The Union has now engaged the services of a team of eminent economists to assist in demonstrating the devastating impact of cutting the NSWFB budget by the 4.5% Government is suggesting.

Members who require more information concerning the above should contact their respective sub-branch secretaries all of whom sit on the Union’s State Committee of Management.

Simon Flynn

State Secretary