Fireys’ damages lawsuit over union ‘bullying’
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.
Firefighters Paul Swain, Lou Mele and Stuart McCall, who are part of the lawsuit