History of the United Firefighters Union of Australia

The United Firefighters Union of Australia was officially registered on August 1, 1990, the culmination of a protracted battle which spanned more than 20 years.

The UFUA was originally registered in 1964 by the Deputy Industrial Registrar of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

UFUA Logo

But success was short lived due to strong opposition from country and metropolitan fire brigades from across Australia, which led to a High Court appeal against the registration.

The Chief Officers of the Country Fire Authority, the Country Fire Authority of Victoria, the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Boards of Melbourne, Brisbane, Launceston, Hobart, Adelaide and Western Australia and the Board of Fire Commissioners of New South Wales were united in their resistance to a national union.

In the 1970 Full Court decision, which came down against the union, Chief Justice Barwick ruled that the UFUA could not properly be registered as a union.

The Court considered whether firefighters were employees engaged in an industry or an industrial dispute within the meaning of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

The Chief Justice said: “This court has seldom had occasion to consider the eligibility of an association to be registered…as an organisation.”

Ultimately, Justice Barwick determined that fire fighting authorities were not engaged in an industry as defined by the Act, and that the work of employee firefighters did not constitute an industrial pursuit, therefore disqualifying the UFUA from being a national organisation.

The decision marked the start of tireless efforts by union members to pursue national registration.

New judgment clears the way

The turning point was another High Court decision 13 years later in 1983, when a judgement delivered by Justice Brennan on behalf of the Full Court, reversed the earlier ruling on what constituted an industry and an industrial dispute. (The Queen v Coldham; ex parte Australian Social Welfare Union).

The decision gave members of state firefighting unions the impetus to continue the push for national registration but also marked the start of a battle with other unions desperate for increased membership.

Over five years, hundreds of meetings were held across the country at a time when union amalgamation was a national issue and a critical factor if unions were survive as viable organisations with the power to represent workers’ rights.

In 1988, the Federal Firefighters Union (FFU) lodged a new application seeking to be registered under the name of the United Firefighters Union of Australia. FFU members were employed at airports and as such were regarded as federal employees which in turn allowed for the FFU to be registered at a national level.

There were 36 objectors including employers and other unions.

Organisers Mick Doyle and Rod Knowles traversed the country speaking to each of the objectors. They succeeded in convincing all but one to drop their objections.

On August 1, 1990, the United Firefighters Union of Australia became an official national union representing more than 11,000 Australian firefighters.

The inaugural meeting of the UFUA was held the same month and officially opened by the then Premier of Tasmania, Michael Field.

Mr Field spoke of the significant achievement for all Australian firefighters and the need for co-operation between government bodies and unions.

The first National President was Rod Knowles and the National secretary was Mick Doyle.

Mr Doyle is now a Commissioner with the South Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Rod Knowles is retired but remains involved with the union.

The UFUA today

The UFUA now represents more than 13,000 firefighters across Australian in continued campaigns to achieve improved working conditions for the men and women who confront dangerous and often life-threatening situations in their daily work.