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As has been widely reported, for the last three years there have been ongoing tensions between the United Fire Fighters Union (UFU) and the Country Fire Authority (CFA). The main reason for the tension is that the parties have not been able to agree on a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).
The UFU have been negotiating with the Victorian state government and the CFA over working conditions, safety practices and wages for “career fire fighters.”
The CFA is primarily concerned that under the proposed deal the UFU would assume more operational control. For example, one proposal is that paid fire fighters are to be given preference over volunteer fire fighters when there is an incident, and in particular, that seven paid fire fighters attend the incident before any volunteers are called. The CFA perceives that this requirement would affect the power balance between ‘career’ and ‘volunteer’ fire fighters.
The tensions during negotiations between the parties have been a very public matter. Straight forward EBA negotiations between employees and their employer has become anything but that. The “negotiations” have negatively impacted the families of the fire fighters (both career and volunteer), the community and due to the length and resistance of the parties the chance of negotiating a workable EBA.
With respect to the negative impact the protracted negotiations have had on the community, recently, a fire fighter had a bullet shell placed in his donation tin while he was collecting for his brigade. The community member told the fire fighter that he could hand that bullet to the career fire fighter staff and the Premier. In another incident, some CFA members have been subject to public booing when they responded to an emergency incident which has caused some fire fighters to be disheartened.
Other examples include families of fire fighters have reporting that there has been increasing stress and anxiety among the families with wives of career fire fighters being asked why they hate volunteers.
There are some people who have felt that the negotiations have been “hijacked by politicians” and what should have been a period of private negotiation between employees and employers had been turned into a political issue.
A further consequence of the failed negotiations (and resultant fall out) is that Ms Jane Garrett resigned as Emergency Services Minister (due to her opposition to the workplace deal with the UFU). In addition, the CFA board was sacked by the Victorian Government after it refused to agree to its latest offer, which had been approved by the UFU. The CFA chief executive Lucinda Nolan also resigned from her position two hours after the board was sacked.
Despite it being a Victorian state issue, Malcolm Turnbull had met with volunteers while campaigning and vowed to protect their roles if elected.
Volunteer fire fighters have also protested against the EBA and have been urged not to leave the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and start up their own fire brigades over the proposed EBA.
Unfortunately, in this case, the parties are so emotionally involved now that it is affecting the broader community.
Complex competing interests are difficult to resolve at EBA discussion time. To ensure that parties are working together towards a common goal the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) specifies that parties are to bargain in ‘good faith’. We recently discussed what good faith bargaining is and recent cases in our June 2016 e-update.
The Fair Work Commission has also recently launched a new option to assist parties with apparently intractable disputes – “New Approaches” - perhaps this long-standing matter would benefit from a “new approach”.
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