Against All Odds:
The History of the United Firefighters Union in Queensland 1917-2008
* By Michael Wright
Bradley Bowden, Against All Odds: The History of the United Firefighters Union in Queensland 1917-2008 (The Federation Press, Annandale, 2008). pb, 176 pp, rrp.$25
In the Foreword by the (now former) Secretary of the United Firefighters Union Queensland [UFU (Qld)], Mark Walker hopes that Bradley Bowden's history of his union will provide "more an insight into what is and will continue to be a successful Union dedicated into looking after not only its members but the wider community of Queensland." (p.vi) Whilst Walker's comments were largely accurate, it is ironic that Walker and his team were voted out of office the following year and that the UFU nationally is currently fragmenting.
Bowden leaves the future to Walker. The title "Against All Odds" for his history of the unionised firefighting in Queensland is an apt one. The struggle for recognition of the UFU Qld as the legitimate representative of firefighters and the fight for even adequate conditions was hard indeed.
Bowden's Introduction succinctly outlines the uniqueness of fire service unionism, which stems from the techniques and organisation of firefighting. He neatly outlines the divides that the UFU Queensland faced in its formation and growth: communities wanting fire protection but not wanting to pay; unpaid, partially paid and paid workers; fire service spatial organisation and parochialism; 'ordinary' firefighters and officers. In this context, the opposition of the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), various fire service employers and the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, made the formation of the UFU Queensland in 1976 a long and hard struggle.
Chapter 1 provides an historical overview of Queensland firefighting up to 1917. With his focus on the firefighting unionism, Bowden makes a number of omissions or errors. He views the "British Tradition" in firefighting as one of aristocratic volunteerism, yet the roots of nineteenth century British urban firefighting are primarily of paid and partially paid insurance and police brigades. The British influence was more to do with the British municipal approach to firefighting, which the Queensland parliament partially emulated in 1881.
In advocating a nexus between Britain and the Colony of Queensland, Bowden misses a more obvious linkage, namely, between NSW and Queensland. The nomenclature of Brisbane's first Brigades (i.e. known as Volunteer Fire Companies) follow the NSW practice, which, in turn, was modeled on the U.S. more voluntarist approach. Indeed these companies operated in Brisbane, well after Bowden asserts they disappeared. NSW is also forgotten in the discussion of union formation even though it formed earlier than those in Britain, Canada and the U.S.
The following three chapters focus primarily on the unionisation of Queensland firefighters and this is where the narrative comes into its own. Bowden explores how the extraordinarily long hours that firefighters worked and their relatively low wages led to their attraction to the dominant Qld AWU. Whilst a number of gains were made under the AWU, its lack of resolve with respect to issues such as firefighting and personal protective equipment and its increasingly bureaucratic and conservative approach led to a search for alternatives.
The emergence of a new national organisation the United Firefighters Union of Australia (UFUA) in the late 1940s offered a new firefighting specific approach to union organisation. Chapter 3 charts the eventual shift of firefighters to 'the UFU' in Queensland. It is a fascinating period where firefighters (particularly in Queensland's South East corner) flocked to the UFU and left the AWU in droves.
Chapter 4 highlights the opposition of these forces and the resistance of UFU (Qld) firefighters through an analysis of the bitter 'Rockhampton dispute' and its aftermath. Bowden explores this particularly interesting and divisive employer-supported demarcation dispute between the UFU (Qld) and the AWU Bowden's analysis highlights many of the tensions at play in firefighting politics including the tensions between localist and central forces and the interplay between strongly hierarchical forms of management (and unionism) and industrial democracy.
The immediate post registration fortunes of the UFU (Qld) are covered in the next chapter. It covers a range of issues including emerging new hazards and the need for more sophisticated personal protective equipment, as well as internal discontent stemming from frustrations with centralised wage fixation and management strategy.
Chapter 5 also raises, albeit briefly, the relations between permanent firefighters and auxiliary firefighters (on call and paid for attendance at fires and training) in the context of a government proposal in the mid 1980s to use the latter instead of full time firefighters. Whilst Bowden explores the demarcation between unions well, his treatment of the inevitable tensions between these groups of workers is sparse. Given the experiences of neighbouring firefighting jurisdictions, the dynamic between these different groups would have shaped both the industry and to a lesser extent the UFU (Qld).
The following two chapters deal with the two decades between 1987 and 2008. Chapter Six highlights the importance of employer structure on union influence. In 1990 the various local firefighting boards were replaced by the Queensland Fire Service (QFS). This gave the UFU opportunities to influence management decisions relating to firefighting vehicles and personal protective equipment. Chapter 7 focuses on the more unified years under the Walker/Lawrence years, with it's emphasis on minimum staffing, PPE and the relatively late embrace of auxiliary firefighters as valued members of the union.
Overall, Bowden's monograph is a good review of the UFU's history. He identifies seemingly common traits of Australian firefighting unions: State based organisations, where the structure of the fire services themselves significantly determine the structure of the Union and their capacity to organise. Localism plays a crucial part within these dynamics as evidenced in the Brisbane / regional divide. Formal, near paramilitary management structures and techniques have provided for strong bonds within fire crews and across multi-station brigades.
Bowden posits that the AWU's industrial 'embrace' of firefighters, and rank and file struggles to escape it, differentiates the UFU (Qld) from their interstate counterparts. While the AWU's legacy is the key issue in the development of the UFU (Qld), other factors set it apart from other Australian firefighting unions that make up the UFUA. Yet as Bowden discusses, employer structure is crucial - Queensland was very late in consolidating disparate local fire boards, compared to the other States. This worked against the development of unified job control by the Union throughout its jurisdiction.
Well researched and eminently readable, Brad Bowden's history is recommended reading. His stirring analysis of the demarcation between the UFU and the AWU is indeed notable. Given the current tensions with the UFU nationally, those in other States could also gain some insights from the book.
* Michael Wright was previously a Senior Industrial Officer with the NSW Fire Brigade Employees' Union (1995-2008). In 2008 he completed a PhD thesis titled: Contested Firegrounds: paid and unpaid labour in NSW firefighting between 1850 and 1955.
Kevin Rudd might have benefited from reflecting on the AWU's history, and its implications for a wilful political loner.
Published 13 August 2010