Cries of “shame” and boos echoed through Melbourne’s CBD as firefighters in uniform shut down major streets amid a bitter dispute between their union and the Victorian government.
More than 1000 people attended the protest on Tuesday, making it the United Firefighters Union’s largest demonstration.
Some were bussed in from across the state while colleagues back home pulled double shifts to cover their absence.
They rallied at the fire station in East Melbourne as speakers blasted stalled negotiations over a new enterprise agreement, which the union claims has been “ripped up” and puts safety at risk.
The crowd then marched to parliament and the Fair Work Commission, many with children in tow.
They called for Fire Rescue Victoria Commissioner Gavin Freeman to resign and chanted “Andrews burns firefighters”.
“There is nothing more significant than firefighter safety, there is nothing more significant than community safety,” the union’s Victorian branch secretary Peter Marshall told protesters.
He said firefighters negotiated with Fire Rescue Victoria for two years across 76 meetings and reached agreement on everything except pay and allowances, which it wanted the Fair Work Commission to arbitrate.
The union claims the government then reneged and said nothing was agreed, which sparked fears other aspects like uniform requirements, minimum staffing and safety issues would be put at risk.
He said workers were “incarcerated” in fire trucks that should have been off the road 20 years ago, there was no investment in the fire service and aerial firefighting capability had been reduced.
“(Fire Rescue Victoria) and the government have actually cheated firefighters most disrespectfully leading into a bad fire season,” Mr Marshall said.
The fire and rescue service had been authorised to put forward a pay offer in line with the state government’s wages policy of three per cent, less than half the union’s claim of seven per cent a year for the next four years.
Government minister Ben Carroll walked past the protest and said emergency services minister Jaclyn Symes was working hard and diligently to find an outcome.
“The union’s doing what they should be doing and that’s defending their workers, fighting for their workers,” Mr Carroll said.
“I know Fire Rescue Victoria are also negotiating.”
Mr Marshall did not rule out further protests heading into fire season if negotiations did not progress.
Firefighter Kat Dunell brought her three children to the rally and said it had galvanised members who feel undervalued.
“It’s not about pay, it’s about our conditions and doing our jobs safely, having good equipment, having the best uniform that we can get,” she said.
“If we don’t have minimum crewing on trucks there’s no guarantee of what will turn up to your house if there’s an emergency.”
The union has also been locked in a long-running dispute with the Victorian government about presumptive cancer laws that were recently expanded to cover 15 diseases, with the union wanting that bumped up to 20.
The scheme means firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers will be presumed to have developed their condition because of their work and are eligible for compensation.
Some 211 claims were processed in Victoria between 2019 and June 2023.
The union was a key ally of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ government when it came to power in 2014.
But the relationship has soured over the 2016 Country Fire Authority pay deal, restructuring of state fire services and expansion of presumptive rights to fire service-affiliated mechanics.