Ballina goes feral – it’s time to bring back the pineapple cake

Many, many years ago, Ballina achieved some notoriety in the industry when some wag made a pineapple cake to farewell a colleague. But not just any pineapple cake, as well as being quite delicious, it also made everyone feel remarkably good that afternoon.

Yes, the pineapple cake had been enhanced with some local herbs. Illegal herbs, of course.

But the gig was up because people thinking their work was hilarious that afternoon was a decidedly uncommon sight at Ballina - where the staff was used to working under- staffed and often under-appreciated.

We mentioned in our special HR Award issue in December that there must have been something in the water up the far North coast because there had been a bit of a frenzy amongst some general managers about the nine day fortnight. Maybe they thought the nine day fortnight, like daylight saving, would fade the curtains. Still, out of the pineapple cake and into the water maybe - paranoia can be a side-effect …

Now, Ballina GM Paul Hickey is not your pineapple cake kind of bloke. Busy heading up a Council that struggles to make ends meet, he is perfectly placed as a bean counter to pursue those wasted dollars. He is also nine day fortnight phobic, a condition not treatable by local illegal medication or, it seems, by logic or commonsense.

Over the past few months we have had four issues with Ballina.

First, he unsuccessfully tried to strip a nine day fortnight arrangement from the building surveyors’ team. The problem was that in his memo terminating the deal he conceded “that each of you has made the current flexible working arrangement work and I do appreciate your efforts in this regard.” Unusual, to say the least, to try to remove something when you concede that it’s working but he wanted to do it because of the “significant morale and equity issue” of others not having the arrangement. And as every short-sighted manager knows, if you have different employment conditions, the best way to create the same arrangement for everyone is to move everyone to the less preferred conditions to shut up those complaining.

He has now “temporarily” withdrawn the notice of termination.

Second, he made life hard for one of our members who is a parent with child care arrangements that could only really be satisfied if she worked a shorter day by taking a 30 minute, rather than one hour, lunch. Damn these mothers at work, they apparently have some rights this century! Then he let her take a 30 minute lunch.

Third, he made life hard for a member on maternity leave wanting to return to work under the nine day fortnight working agreement she had worked under for four years preceding the maternity leave – a formal Working Agreement, drafted by the Council, that provided it could only be terminated if “demonstrated that the customer service or operational requirements are not being achieved”.

The Council, having allowed the nine day fortnight to continue for four years was clearly not able to terminate it for these reasons and, after proceedings in the Industrial Relations Commission, accepted a recommendation of Deputy President Harrison for our member to return to work under the nine day fortnight for 6 months to determine whether there were any customer service or operational problems. Put up, or shut up, really.

Finally, he thought it made sense to remove the Christmas/New Year concession leave which the Council had provided every year, without fail, from at least the 1940s “to partly compensate administration, office and technical staff are unpaid overtime during the year.”

A dispute we filed was conciliated by Deputy President Harrison in Sydney on 7 March. The GM and HR Manager flew down for the day (when you are trying to save the cost of three days pay to the salaried staff, sometimes you have to spend some money to do that) and we found the GM's rationalisation of the decision confusing.

Again, he claimed there were people unhappy that they work longer for nothing than others (and they would rather get no days off at Christmas and New Year if that means those that don’t suck as hard miss out too), the Council had reduced income and needed to make some savings and there was an accountability issue about the equity of the three days and because it wasn’t three days off for the equivalent of three days worked, it was too imprecise.

The dispute resumes in Ballina on 8 May. Because we couldn’t understand the GM’s argument, we agreed that the Council would commit it to writing and Deputy President Harrison recommended that the Council and the unions “exchange information” to allow conciliation to better take place on 8 May. All we wanted was a series of dotpoints to better understand the decision and be able to focus in our response but what we’ve got so far is six affidavits from witnesses supporting the removal of the entitlement (including sadly from one of our members) and a 79 point submission by a Sydney barrister which the Council will rely on.

A bit “up yours” to us and the Commission because it means that they are ready to arbitrate if they don’t get what they want in the conciliation and that, to us, sounds like duress and intimidation.

But because the primary obligation under the Industrial Relations Act is to get the parties to reach agreement, we (and the other two unions in support) will do what was intended on 8 May and try to reach some agreement.

We hope commonsense can prevail. The GM is down three nil against us so far and, despite the six affidavits and 79 points from their barrister, he still hasn’t addressed why the Council thinks that it no longer needs to recognise those additional hours worked voluntarily like they have for the past, at least, 70 years. How much do you want for nothing, Paul?

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