The Guardian • Issue #2055

Firefighters rally for wage justice

Firefighters rally for wage justice

Photo: Richard Titelius

On Thursday 25th May, several hundred members of the United Firefighters Union of WA and their supporters, principally from other trade unions, marched from the Supreme Court Gardens wearing their uniforms, to take their struggle for a better wage outcome, improved conditions, and increased resources to Parliament House.

Like most of the state public sector unions who commenced their latest round of improvements in wages and conditions in December 2021, the United Firefighters Union has been met with resistance from the government to bargain in a principled manner. Led by Premier and Treasurer, Mark McGowan, this anti-worker position is being enforced by Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston and Emergency Services Minister Steve Dawson.

When the firefighters were at Parliament House, they were addressed by Minister Johnston, a former trade union official himself, who insisted the initial and only offer put on the table was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. This came with a threat of legal action attached as they had undertaken the march and rally in defiance of an order by their employer.

The firefighters responded by turning their backs on him and booing loudly in disapproval. This tactic of the government was similar to the one used against the Australian Nurses Federation (ANF) last year, when that union’s members went on strike and marched on Parliament House.

The Commission on 26th May fined the ANF $350,000 and its state secretary Janet Reah, $10,000. The nurses and the police in WA are yet to settle their wage claims with the McGowan government. The government’s offer of 3 per cent per annum and a $3000 cost of living payment upon signing by the government is the same offer made to all public sector unions in WA and is out of touch with the current rate of inflation which is over 7 per cent.

The union is asking for 5 per cent per annum over two years, better overtime rates, and higher employer superannuation contributions. A speaker from the union membership Pippa Williams said that firefighters were often leaving the industry as they were suffering from broken bodies, cancers from exposure to chemicals during fighting fires, exhaustion, and burnout. Owen Whittle, secretary of peak union body, Unions WA, said all unions in WA support their campaign for improved wages and conditions. Whittle added, “Only by doing it together for your members can we push the government to change their offer.”

Unlike the gap between what the firefighters want and what the government will offer. Whittle, concluded, “There is no gap between unions in their support for the industrial campaign by the United Fire Workers Union.”

Clem Chan, state President of the United Firefighters Union asked, what does the government think you are worth, especially when it says its offer is generous even though it remains the first and only offer they have made. Chan added that the “well of goodwill” had run dry between their members and the government.

In regard to the Industrial relations Minister’s threat of compulsory arbitration, Chan stated, “Don’t dictate, negotiate!” The offer presented, added Chan, was not enough and that is why they were on the steps of Parliament House, “our members will not be ignored.” The members seek an offer that respects their workload and the difficult conditions under which they often work.

The firefighters will continue their campaign for a decent wage rise and improvements to their conditions. The Communist Party of Australia supports the United Firefighters Union in their claim for a better wage outcome, improvement in conditions, increased staff, and more resources.

This is especially necessary as climate change has increased the severity of weather conditions that precipitate more severe fires and floods to which firefighters are called to respond. The CPA also applauds the unity and solidarity shown by the many sectors of the organised working class who turned up to the march and rally in support of the Fire Fighters Union.

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