Jul 18

Melbourne fire brigade loses legal fight over union veto

Melbourne’s fire brigade has failed in its bid to strip back a union’s wide-ranging veto powers over management decisions, with the industrial umpire refusing to terminate the existing deal.

The Fair Work Commission’s ruling on Monday will upset the Napthine government, which strongly backed the fire brigade’s application and trashed the union’s actions as “arrogant”.

The expensive legal test case was over the attempt by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) to scrap the 2010 employment agreement. It culminated in weeks of hearings earlier this year.

MFB bosses had described the enterprise agreement as unworkable because it gave too much veto power to the United Firefighters Union, singling out its refusal to bring on extra staff to help paramedics during last summer’s heatwave.

The commission heard that MFB management was restricted to the extent that it needed union approval to shift a truck from one station to another.

But the union argued that “robust” consultation provisions on all operational matters were crucial for firefighters’ confidence given the unique and life-threatening nature of their work.

Union state secretary Peter Marshall said the ruling was a “loss for the MFB and the Napthine government” but a “huge victory for residents of Melbourne”.

Mr Marshall said the failed legal fight had been a “politically motivated” waste of public funds and an embarrassment for the state government.

“After 18 months of negotiations, the Napthine government goes into caretaker mode tonight with another job unfinished,” he said.

The union has called for the resignation of MFB chief officer Peter Rau and president Neil Comrie, after more than 90 per cent of members delivered a damning vote of no confidence.

Among the most controversial and hotly contested elements of the hearings was the union’s refusal to consider an MFB proposal to cut the minimum number of firefighters kept on duty in the city.

Under the plan, on-duty operational staff numbers could fall by as much as 9 per cent – or 24 firefighters and eight trucks – on days that management deemed to be low-risk or when city crews needed to be sent to major jobs or regional disasters.

High-ranking officers were bitterly divided between those fearing that parts of the city could be left vulnerable and others who said the existing quota was too high and favoured the plan that could save millions of dollars lost to penalty rates.

Fair Work Commissioner Nick Wilson ruled that the effect of tearing up the employment agreement would have a “significantly greater negative effect on the employees and the union than the positive effect on the MFB”.

MFB chief executive Jim Higgins said management would review the commission’s ruling.

He said the brigade’s main aim had been to negotiate new enterprise agreements that responded to the reform agenda from the Black Saturday bushfires royal commission.

“Ultimately, we are looking to build an agile and flexible organisation that is responsive and positions safety for our workforce and the community at the centre of all we do,” he said.

Emergency Services Minister Kim Wells said the MFB would continue to bargain in good faith to secure a fair outcome for firefighters and ensure community safety.

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