Fireys’ dam­ages law­suit over union ‘bul­ly­ing’

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - SI­MON BENSON NA­TIONAL AF­FAIRS EDI­TOR

The Vic­to­rian govern­ment faces a po­ten­tial multi-mil­lion-dol­lar law­suit over al­le­ga­tions of union intimidation against a num­ber of se­nior fire­fight­ers, who were forced to quit af­ter a 15-year cam­paign of ha­rass­ment in­clud­ing threats of vi­o­lence that the Metropoli­tan Fire Bri­gade man­age­ment is ac­cused of hav­ing failed to take se­ri­ously.

Doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Week­end Aus­tralian al­lege an or­ches­trated cam­paign of intimidation and bul­ly­ing by mem­bers of the United Fire­fight­ers Union against at least 10 se­nior fire­fight­ers, which in­cluded a bul­let be­ing posted to the home of one of the fire­fight­ers. Some union mem­bers al­legedly re­fused to take or­ders from the se­nior fire­fight­ers while fight­ing fires.

The log of bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions dat­ing back to 2002 have been sent to the MFB on be­half of the fire­fight­ers who claim it con­sis­tently breached work­place laws by fail­ing to pro­tect them from union ha­rass­ment.

In one case, a se­nior com­man­der was sent a bul­let in the mail af­ter seek­ing a pro­mo­tion with­out the union’s im­pri­matur.

An­other fire­fighter, af­ter be­ing pro­moted to com­man­der at the same time, was sub­jected to daily anony­mous phone calls to his home and of­fice dur­ing which he was ac­cused of be­ing a “scab” and a “wog c...”.

Sev­eral of the men, spo­ken to by The Week­end Aus­tralian, claimed to have been shunned by col­leagues on jobs fight­ing fires, while em­ploy­ees were reg­u­larly re­quired to cite the def­i­ni­tion of a scab at muster when the men were present.

The doc­u­ments also cite posters ad­ver­tis­ing a com­pe­ti­tion called “Guess the Name of the Rat-Mole”, based on a TV game show, in which UFU mem­ber fire­fight­ers were told to re­port to union of­fi­cials those they sus­pected of be­ing “traitors” within the ranks of the Metropoli­tan Fire and Emer­gency Ser­vices Board, also known as the MFB.

The al­leged ha­rass­ment be­gan in 2002 when all 10 fire­fight­ers were asked by MFB to ap­ply for pro­mo­tion to com­man­der or in­spec­tor level. At the time they claim they were as­sured by the MFB hi­er­ar­chy that they would be pro­tected from intimidation by the union, which is al­leged to have de­manded none of its mem­bers ap­ply for jobs as part of an in­dus­trial dis­pute.

All claim they were then stripped of union mem­ber­ship and tar­geted in a “re­lent­less” cam­paign of intimidation over a 15year pe­riod. All also claim even­tu­ally to been forced into early retirement, and now claim sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial loss as a re­sult of the MFB’s fail­ure to pro­vide a safe work en­vi­ron­ment.

A let­ter from the fire­fight­ers’ lawyers, Arro, to the MFESB, dated Septem­ber this year and seek­ing a meet­ing with the board’s man­age­ment, has claimed that the or­gan­i­sa­tion con­sis­tently

failed to act de­spite be­ing “well aware of the de­fi­cien­cies in its in­ter­nal sys­tems”.

The doc­u­ments re­fer to a se­ries of in­ves­ti­ga­tions and re­views com­mis­sioned by the MFESB over the past 15 years, which had warned the or­gan­i­sa­tion of the “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” con­duct of the UFU. “The MFESB was aware of this con­duct but failed to take any ac­tion to con­tain or elim­i­nate the on­go­ing ha­rass­ment of the com­plainants,” the let­ter said.

The doc­u­ments, ob­tained by The Week­end Aus­tralian, also re­fer to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­ducted by au­di­tor KPMG on be­half of the MFESB in 2010 fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of im­proper con­duct within the MFESB in­clud­ing “bul­ly­ing, drug deal­ing and im­proper prac­tice”.

“(De­spite this re­port) the MFESB still re­fused to im­ple­ment changes to its work­ing en­vi­ron­ment to pro­vide a safe work­ing en­vi­ron­ment or move to al­le­vi­ate any and all work­place bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment,” the let­ter said.

The MFESB con­ducted a fur­ther in­ter­nal re­view last De­cem­ber that found “sig­nif­i­cant sys­temic and cul­ture is­sues” that needed to be ad­dressed.

“The MFESB was aware of this con­duct but failed to take any ac­tion to con­tain or elim­i­nate the on­go­ing ha­rass­ment of the com­plainants,” le­gal doc­u­ments sent to the MFB claim.

One of the fire­fight­ers, Paul Swain, told The Week­end Aus­tralian he was even­tu­ally forced out of the ser­vice af­ter 29 years be­cause of sus­tained ha­rass­ment that in­cluded a bul­let be­ing sent to his home in 2008. “I picked it up, walked out into the street and threw it as far as I could,” the 58year-old re­tired fire­fighter said.

He said that, on an­other oc­ca­sion, he had been called out as the act­ing chief to a fire in Colling­wood, and an em­ployee had dis­obeyed di­rect or­ders.

“I turned up as as­sis­tant chief and walked on scene and saw a fire­fighter work­ing with a hose un­der tram lines and power lines. I told him to move it … he paid no at­ten­tion to me at all … even­tu­ally, I grabbed him and said mate you are go­ing to bring the power lines down,” Mr Swain said.

“By the time I got back to cen­tral zone … I had al­ready had a com­plaint made against me. I be­came a light­ning rod for an­tag­o­nism. The re­al­ity was that ev­ery day you went to work it was a bat­tle, and there was no sup­port from any­one at a higher level.”

The Week­end Aus­tralian un­der­stands that lawyers for the MFB this week agreed to a meet­ing with the fire­fight­ers’ le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The let­ter to the MFESB al­leges it had been in breach of the Fair Work Act by fail­ing to ad­dress what was claimed to be an un­safe and hos­tile work­place.

“Your or­gan­i­sa­tion is in breach of its pri­mary obli­ga­tion … to main­tain the health, safety and wel­fare of all em­ploy­ees pur­suant to the stated ob­jec­tive in clause 1 sched­ule 1 of the MFESB and UFU Op­er­a­tional staff agree­ment 2010 …” said the let­ter from Arro. “Fur­ther the MFESB is in breach of and has failed to com­ply with its spe­cific obli­ga­tion set out in the 2010 en­ter­prise agree­ment, in con­tra­ven­tion of Sec­tion 50 of the Fair Work Act 2009.”

An­other of the fire­fight­ers, Lou Mele, who took early retirement last year af­ter 37 years, said their com­plaint was with the MFESB rather than the union, for fail­ing to act in its duty to pro­tect them from ret­ri­bu­tion.

“It made a won­der­ful job very stress­ful …. we hadn’t done any­thing wrong … we were en­cour­aged by the man­age­ment to put our hands up for pro­mo­tion,” Mr Mele said. “We thought it might be rough … but it was rougher than we imag­ined and we never ex­pected we wouldn’t get the sup­port from the or­gan­i­sa­tion …. they hung us out to dry.

“The irony is we would have gladly ac­cepted a pub­lic apol­ogy and recog­ni­tion of our plight … we are not in­ter­ested in that any­more …. we want them to com­pen­sate us.”

The claim by the men rep­re­sents loss of po­ten­tial in­come from be­ing forced out of the ser­vice pre­ma­turely at ranks not con­sis­tent with their se­nior­ity, es­ti­mated col­lec­tively to be worth sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars.

A let­ter from lawyers Her­bert Smith Free­hills, rep­re­sent­ing the MFB, con­firmed that the cur­rent MFB man­age­ment was tak­ing the claims se­ri­ously and was pre­pared to at­tend a “with­out prej­u­dice” con­fer­ence with the fire­fight­ers by the end of the year.

“As set out in our pre­vi­ous cor­re­spon­dence, our client re­quires fur­ther time to re­view the var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions made by each of your ten clients,” said the let­ter dated Oc­to­ber 12. “We are in­structed that the MFB is pre­pared to at­tend a with­out prej­u­dice con- fer­ence with your clients dur­ing this cal­en­dar year as you in­sist.”

Last June the UFU was granted an in­junc­tion on the re­lease of a re­port com­mis­sioned by the An­drews govern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate work­place bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment within the Vic­to­rian fire­fight­ing ser­vices. Emer­gency Ser­vices Min­is­ter James Mer­lino said at the time: “Mul­ti­ple re­ports have been clear that there are se­ri­ous cul­tural is­sues within our fire ser­vices, in­clud­ing a poor re­la­tion­ship between man­age­ment and work­ers and a lack of di­ver­sity in the ranks — this needs to be ad­dressed.”

Mr Mer­lino had not re­sponded by dead­line last night to a re­quest for com­ment. The UFU did not re­turn calls or emails to The Week­end Aus­tralian.

PAUL JEF­FERS

Fire­fight­ers Paul Swain, Lou Mele and Stu­art Mc­Call, who are part of the law­suit

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