Union Bully Busting: FU To The UFU

Written by:
14 October 2016
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Voters in the ACT have a stark choice this weekend: Jeremy Hanson and the Canberra Liberals, or four more years of a government notoriously beholden to trade unions (even by Labor standards).

Canberrans only have to look south to see what a union-dominated government looks like.

Victoria’s situation is so dire that Metropolitan Fire Brigade chief Peter Rau resigned recently due to stress, attributed to bullying by the United Firefighters Union. It is no wonder.

The reason for Rau’s resignation came to light when Acting Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville was caught out shamelessly spinning the sudden departure. Rau, she wrongly said, was ‘gravely ill’.

Rather, it is our fire services bodies that are ‘gravely ill’, under siege from the United Firefighters Union.

Consider the symptoms. The bullying of Rau and others. Alleged threats by UFU boss Peter Marshall to put an axe through the head of a state government minister. And the extraordinary attack on over 55,000 Country Fire Authority volunteers.

As spectacular and shocking as these symptoms are, the underlying disease is more complex and longstanding.

Australia’s industrial relations regime – ushered in by the Rudd Government’s Fair Work Act – has put unions in an unprecedented position of privilege and influence. In a recent report released by the Institute of Public Affairs, I argued that one of the most insidious effects of Fair Work has been the creep of union influence beyond just pay and conditions via favourable enterprise bargaining agreements.

Through increasingly audacious negotiation with state governments, unions are building clauses into EBAs requiring that management ‘consult’ with them on a wide range of operational matters, often completely unrelated to workers’ pay and conditions.

These provisions not limited to fire services authorities. The Ambulance Victoria EBA, for example, requires that management must consult with the relevant union in relation to any proposal to ‘restructure the workplace, introduce new technology or change existing work practices’. Management must also give ‘due consideration’ to ‘alternative proposals’. Similar provisions exist in EBAs covering other emergency services bodies, like Victoria Police and the State Emergency Service.

Public sector EBAs also typically include time-consuming ‘dispute resolution’ clauses, which can be invoked where management and the relevant union cannot reach ‘consensus’ on proposed changes.

Evidence given to the Fair Work Commission by the MFB show that consultation has been required on matters as trivial as the migration of the MFB’s operating system to Windows 7 and proposed changes to the model of pencils to be used by firefighters.

Unsurprisingly, management are throwing up their hands in frustration. Prior to his resignation, Rau indicated that the UFU’s ‘power of veto over my statutory responsibilities is unworkable and undermines community safety’.

Similarly, Joe Buffone, then-CFA chief, indicated that consultation provisions ‘undermine my statutory authority as Chief Officer to have and maintain control, at all times, of resources.’

The Turnbull Government’s changes to the Fair Work Act this week are a positive step. In effect, they would quarantine decisions about the deployment of volunteers from union veto powers.

But while protecting volunteers is important, the government must go further in limiting the matters that can be governed by EBAs.

Enterprise bargaining should be a mechanism to set pay and conditions, but it has become a proxy tool for joint union-management operational decision-making. Until this changes, our emergency services bodies will continue to be hamstrung, and we the public will be ‘gravely ill’ for it.

This article appeared in The Spectator Australia on the 14th of October, 2016.

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