UFU secretary Peter Marshall speaking at a rally. Photo: Justin McManusPeter Marshall drives through the night. It might be 2am or 3. Through the industrial flatlands of outer western Melbourne, or the tree-ferned foothills of the Dandenongs –anywhere his members work around the clock waiting for the call: fire.
The Victorian secretary of the United Firefighters Union is renowned for his commitment. “He works tirelessly for his members, 18, 20 hours a day, he only sleeps four or five hours,” says Electrical Trades Union secretary Troy Gray. “If you text him at 4 in the morning you’ll get one back.”
Texting is becoming an issue for Marshall, the man behind the CFA row now threatening to send an otherwise productive and progressive Andrews government up in flames.
He is to be the subject of a formal bullying complaint by former emergency services minister Jane Garrett. It is believed his haranguing texts during the row are one of the reasons the minister came to feel bullied by Marshall.
In some parts of the media he has been cast as an archetypal union villain – a thug who counts Mick Gatto among his best mates, and stops at nothing to win a fight. To his mainly loyal – often deeply so – members, he is a hero.
“He’s fanatical about protecting his members,” observes Phil Cleary, the left-leaning former Coburg footy champ and one-time independent MP for Wills. A senior Labor insider says Marshall is “addicted to war”. The one thing everyone agrees on is that he is uncompromising.
The CFA row has led to the ministerial resignation of one of Labor’s rising stars, Garrett, the sacking of the CFA board, the resignation of a string of senior officers and internal Labor friction that is eroding Daniel Andrews’ leadership.
An Age poll yesterday highlighted the dispute as the reason for the collapse in Andrews’ popularity. It came after a terrible week in which: the state Labor caucus imploded amid allegations Garrett had leaked to damage the government; Garrett announced her intention to make a formal complaint; and Malcolm Turnbull opened his first term as elected prime minister with a bill to thwart the CFA deal and enshrine the protection of volunteers.
Back in the heady days of late 2014 some newly elected Labor MPs expected the CFA enterprise agreement to be a routine industrial matter for the new Andrews government – a bit of family “argy bargy” between Labor and a public sector union quickly resolved.
Anyone who believed that didn’t know Marshall and wasn’t considering the consequences of fully enlisting him in the 2014 election campaign.
Peter Marshall is old school. He was raised working class in pre-gentrified, industrial Brunswick.
He became a firefighter with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade – and a believer in class politics. He has run the UFU as a militant left union for more than 20 years. It is formally part of the Labor family, and pays affiliation fees, but Marshall has never looked comfortable in Bob Hawke-styled modern Labor.
His relationship with the ALP is transactional. He threatens Labor people with destruction of their political ambitions or governments. And he means it. Some know it, too. Or do now at least.
He has oscillated between Labor and the Greens for years. He backed the union’s lawyer, the Greens’ Adam Bandt, in 2010 and 2013 for the once-safe Labor heartland seat of Melbourne.
But at the state level, and especially in the 2014, the UFU fought hard for an Andrews government, turning out to doorknock, and gathering at the Collingwood Town Hall in honour of their man: Dan Andrews.
The UFU is small but special. In an election campaign, firefighters are a dream come true. Everyone respects them. They are tribal and work together with military precision.
Marshall was especially supportive of Garrett in the seat of Brunswick, his home turf, a traditional Labor stronghold under challenge from the Greens.
The two had worked closely when Labor was in opposition from 2010-2014. Garrett’s predecessor in the seat of Brunswick, Carlo Carli, recalls them together at campaign functions, and firefighters “thick on the ground” in polling booths across the Brunswick electorate in 2014.
Marshall is renowned for his loyalty to those who back him – like Bandt – and fierce on those who cross him. Carli says the roots of the current CFA imbroglio lay in the closeness of the relationship in 2014.
“It was a terrible mistake to make Jane the minister responsible for emergency services, responsible for Peter, given their friendship and the support he gave her.”
As minister, Garrett agreed to many of the union’s demands, including a substantial pay rise and a large increase in the number of professional firefighters.
But she backed the CFA in resisting some of the union’s more outlandish demands, assuming, probably, that there was ambit in its claims.
At the core of the row is what CFA chiefs saw as a union bid to unreasonably extend its control over the volunteer-based CFA. Marshall denies a power grab.
In 2015 relations between Garrett and the union broke down, a rift that came to a head in an October meeting which, according to insiders, ended in disarray after a Marshall rant including a direct threat to the minister.
Multiple departments, agencies, experts and labour luminaries had been brought into the fray to try and resolve the dispute. Among them Dean Mighell, the former firebrand union leader and Marshall friend.
“You wouldn’t meet anyone who would be more fanatical and work harder for his members,” says Mighell, who worked as a consultant for the UFU last year.
Still, despite his considerable negotiating skills and friendship with both antagonists – Marshall and Garrett – Mighell was not able to get the dispute resolved. He wasn’t alone.
The bamboozling thing for many involved has been Marshall’s apparent lack of concern for the government and the wider Labor project. (It’s a charge laid against Garrett also, especially since Andrews controversially intervened to settle the dispute in June by backing a union-friendly version of the agreement.)
Carli says many young Labor people struggle to understand Marshall’s loyalties. “Peter is deeply dedicated to a cause and the cause is firefighters.”
“It’s his life,” is a comment made repeatedly by those who know him. There would not be many – if any – paid firefighters he has not met.
“Putting aside everything that is supposedly happening between him and Jane Garrett, I actually kind of like Peter Marshall,” says Cleary, who has devoted much of the past 20 years campaigning against violent treatment of women. “I see him as cut out of the old Labor rock, from the craft, manual labour unions.
“He’s like a worker from the coalface, he’s got street smarts and the capacity to argue a point and argue it theoretically about the rights of his members.”
Sometimes though, Marshall’s intensity is hard to be around. In full flight in negotiations or even with his own staff, he can be confronting. “It’s bullying,” says one observer.
This is also reflected in his aggressive class-war language preferred by the old warriors of the labour movement but deemed inappropriate in the 2000s – the kind of language is now at the centre of a serious rift between Andrews and Garrett.
Some Labor MPs and union leaders are dismissive, saying Marshall’s language is standard in the rough and tumble of the labour movement. And Garrett is, after all, very close to the CFMEU.
Others point out that it is not just the language but also Marshall’s alleged haranguing of Garrett night and day that got to her, and UFU members turning out to niggle her at public events. One senior Labor figure earlier this year described Marshall’s approach as war declared “on a daily basis”.
It is a view that attracts sympathy, not just from supporters of Garrett, who are alarmed at the win-at-any-cost approach he takes.
“He’d rather a fight than a feed,” is how one union comrade puts it, affectionately. And says another: “The need to be at war seems greater than anything else. There’s something driving it that’s not normal industrial relations.”
Neither Mr Marshall nor Ms Garrett would be interviewed. Nor did either want to comment.
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