Burn notice: At war with the fireys' union

Daniel Andrews arrives at the Parliament in Melbourne. 19th October 2017. Photo by Jason South
Daniel Andrews arrives at the Parliament in Melbourne. 19th October 2017. Photo by Jason South
The Age, News. Prof' Caroline Taylor for story by Nick McKenzie .Pic Simon Schluter 16 October 2017.

The Age, News. Prof' Caroline Taylor for story by Nick McKenzie .Pic Simon Schluter 16 October 2017.

In late October 2001, Steve Bracks' Labor government sent a letter of warning to Peter Marshall, the highly effective but occasionally combustible head of the United Firefighters Union.

Bracks' minister for emergency services, Andre Haermeyer, made it clear that "there will be no discrimination by the union" against "employees based on their employment arrangements".

Haermeyer's letter was prompted by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade's desire to create new senior positions of inspector. The UFU, as was its right, staunchly opposed the proposal because the new jobs did not fall under its workplace agreement, and it forbade members applying.

Six weeks later, with the MFB poised to unveil 11 men as its new inspectors, Marshall launched a pre-emptive strike: "WHAT IS A SCAB?" he asked rhetorically in an email bulletin to all UFU members.

Eight paragraphs later, Marshall signed off "the UFU office hopes this answers many of the questions received concerning the definition of a scab and the feelings of loathing and hatred that surround them".

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For the men who were announced as the MFB's new inspectors two days before Christmas 2001, Marshall's bulletin was just the beginning of what many of them claim was a grinding 15-year campaign of harassment and intimidation orchestrated by the union and enabled by a succession of weak governments.

The nasty MFB-wide emails started almost immediately after their appointments. In one, the men were compared to untrustworthy "dogs", and, in another, a firefighter promised to snub them outside of official duties "the rest of the time as you deserve".

More than 15 years later, Daniel Andrews' Labor government is looking just as impotent as Haermeyer and his "no discrimination" promise, as long-running industrial tensions and alleged systemic bullying in the MFB and the Country Fire Authority cast a shadow over the Premier's leadership.

The CFA has been under extreme pressure this week after Fairfax Media published the results of an explosive 2016 staff survey that detailed serious sexual assault of women and wider harassment among its non-firefighting employees. So bad was the situation that the report's author herself, Professor Caroline Taylor, is out on stress leave.

Anecdotal reports suggest the situation is just as bad in volunteer firefighter ranks.

The government is also bracing for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from 10 or more of the MFB's former inspectors who allege they were denied a safe workplace and were forced to prematurely curtail their careers due to constant bullying and harassment.

Several serving and former firefighters, as well as managers and support staff, have said that the problems in Victoria's highly respected fire services stem from two distinct things: culture, and Daniel Andrews' seeming inability to say no to the UFU.

Hate mail

Lou Mele knew the start to his career as a MFB inspector would be rocky. So did Paul Swain, Stuart McCall and all the others.

The UFU was and remains one of Victoria's strongest and most effective unions. Mele, Swain and McCall all knew how vehemently opposed the union was to their new jobs, and were prepared for robust blowback. But they also believed the MFB management, board and relevant ministers would be able to keep things in check. Looking back, the trio can't believe how wrong they turned out to be.

While it was one thing to be the subject of nasty work emails and unflattering "scab" posters at stations, it was another when the bullying extended to home and family.

"My 15-year-old son answered the phone at home and was told that his dad was a 'f-----g wog scab c--t'," Mele said, adding that his son invited to the caller to say it face to face.

The men say they received a range of dead animals either in the mail or outside their homes. Often Band-Aids were sent as a reminder of their scab status. One time, Swain received a bullet in his letterbox.

Their isolation also had an effect at fire scenes where they, as inspectors or commanders, would arrive to take command. Swain recalls encountering great difficulty on several occasions in getting a briefing from firefighters at the scene. This made it hard for him to take control, and effectively sabotaged the MFB's chain of command.

"Yet I'd have people who wouldn't talk to me at a scene in front of others call me up later to apologise," Swain said.

McCall had his authority challenged in a direct manner in front of several firefighters when a senior UFU figure repeatedly refused to follow an order. After enduring years of hostility at work, this was the tipping point for McCall. He went on extended stress leave and required extensive counselling.

"My career at the MFB was cut short by years because of management and the board's inability to provide a safe workplace. I never got to the positions I thought I could get to," McCall said.

The UFU strongly rejects any claims it has "contributed to a culture enabling harassment" and points out that it has never been the subject of any adverse finding in regards to bullying or harassment.

Privately, senior UFU figures believe that while the legal threat from the former inspectors may put pressure on a government nervous about opening up another front in the firefighter controversy, it will ultimately fail. In 2012 another former inspector, Philip Klein, took the government to court over bullying and harassment he endured at the MFB. His case was unsuccessful.

A MFB spokesman said the brigade was in the process of arranging a meeting with the former inspectors and their legal representatives. While the MFB has "many great people and strengths", it did not shy away from the need for change, the spokesman said.

As for this week's revelations of bullying and harassment among the CFA's back-office workforce, the UFU and its members have taken to social media to portray it as yet another misguided media attack on them.

The MFB has committed to meeting with its former inspectors and their legal representatives.

A new word

"Embuggerance: Calculated delay for the purpose of illustrating power balance."

This is not a funky new entry in the latest Oxford dictionary. It is a word employed by a former MFB industrial relations manager, Leigh Hocking, to describe, in an 18-page memo written shortly before he left in 2009, the abrasive industrial climate in the fire services.

Though the document is eight years old, the issues it seeks to deal with loom as large as ever. In particular, Hocking's memo focuses on the power that is granted to the union through what is regularly described as a "consultation by consensus" clause in its Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

This clause makes it incumbent on management to consult and seek agreement from the union on the smallest of changes. According to several past and serving MFB managers, the entire organisation can be brought to a halt if agreement cannot be reached.

"The UFU's obstructionist behaviour was so ingrained into the MFB culture as to have entered the local lexicon - and so embuggerance was born and became a term to describe the aberrant behaviours of the UFU in the IR context. It manifests itself in conflict at every opportunity, constant attacks on management credibility, often personalised and wearing down of the other side," Hocking wrote.

Hocking's job at the MFB often put him into conflict with the UFU and his views have no doubt been coloured by his role. But the workplace behaviour he describes accords with the accounts provided by former inspectors and acting assistant chiefs.

The union's ability to pull the reins at the MFB through consultation by consensus is one of the biggest reasons for the turmoil surrounding the CFA and its acrimonious EBA negotiations in recent years. This has cost Andrews a minister, a chief executive, a chief officer and several board members.

There are many examples of the UFU using its industrial power to stop change at the MFB. Often disputes are had about the smallest of things.

One illuminating example can be found buried in the transcripts of old Fair Work Commission hearings.

It's from December 2008 and relates to the union using its power to stop the MFB from running diversity workshops. The workshops included training for new recruits in how to deal with the different groups of people they would encounter on jobs.

The union's lawyer, now the Greens member for Melbourne in federal parliament, Adam Bandt, never really explained just why the diversity workshops posed a problem. What he focused on in a repetitious grilling of the MFB's diversity manager, Dalal Smiley, was whether the union had been adequately notified about "focus groups".

So doggedly did Bandt question Ms Smiley, that Fair Work Commissioner Barbara Deegan had to pull him into line.

"I presume this is relevant is it, Mr Bandt, because it's getting very boring," Deegan said.

It is not the best way to get things done.

Four years after negotiations began for a new enterprise agreement, it remains unsigned. The Andrews government's fire services legislation is going nowhere in state parliament. And a report by the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission has been stalled in court by the union. The MFB has unsuccessfully tried for two years to introduce a social media policy.

Embuggerance indeed.

This story Burn notice: At war with the fireys' union first appeared on The Age.