Metro dispute: Our conditions are not for sale!


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Metro Trains management made an insulting “best and final” offer on a new collective contract for Melbourne’s rail workers early in September. The deal, which nullifies rostering protections and undermines other conditions, was overwhelming rejected by union members at mass meetings around the network.

A 4-hour strike was planned for August 27 following from a 99% ‘yes’ vote of union members for industrial action. But union officials called off the strike because of a shifty manoeuvre by management in the courts that could have rendered the action legally ‘unprotected’. This would have opened the union up to fines and other attacks.

Seizing the opportunity, the bosses made an even worse offer and pressured workers to accept the shoddy deal. Management claim their pay offer of 3.5% per year for four years is ‘fair compensation’ for turning rail workers into virtual casuals, who could be sent anywhere at any time with little notice. The response of union members was clearly that “our conditions are not for sale!”

Currently, railway jobs are high quality compared to the low pay and precarious working conditions facing workers in many other industries. The reason is that railway workers are well organised in their union and previous generations of unionists have fought hard to win and defend decent pay and good rostering protections.

Metro’s CEO commented in the media that he was offering conditions that the workers “deserved”. Clearly, he thinks Metro workers should be at his beck and call, have little certainty and should have their leisure time compromised so that the company can turn an even bigger profit.

The bosses at Metro dream of importing the kind of “flexibility” (read: lack of rights) seen in other industries. A defeat for rail workers on this front would be a defeat for all workers because it would further entrench this model of work in society and accelerate declining living standards. We need to fight to improve conditions in other sectors and resist the ‘race to the bottom’ imposed by the bosses.

Management’s attitude is especially insulting to women and LGBTIQ workers, who are over-represented in other poorly organised industries and disproportionately suffer from low pay and casualisation.

Having only recently gained access to some higher-quality rail jobs, these workers are now being told to give up their conditions and return to a life of waiting at the phone for shifts. Management’s rhetoric on diversity in the workplace rings particularly hollow now.

The bosses now say that jobs are under threat if they don’t get their way. But they also send emails praising staff for the wonderful work they do helping and supporting the travelling public in often difficult circumstances. This carrot and stick approach is only angering workers and inflaming tensions.

Legal action is now underway in an attempt to restore the ability of the union to organise ‘protected’ industrial action. Hearings are scheduled for mid-October. Both the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) and the company are likely to appeal if they lose. Protracted appeals taking many months and going right up to the High Court are possible, which could draw the dispute out.

The legal action to have the block on protected industrial action removed is important. All attempts should be made to put union members in the strongest possible position to defend their rights. If this lengthens the dispute then so be it, there is no reason to rush into a bad deal.

A win in court could also set a new legal precedent that is helpful to the wider trade union movement. But what we really need is a wider political and industrial campaign to change the draconian industrial laws that are supported by both the major parties.

If all ‘protected’ avenues to industrial action are blocked because the laws are stacked in favour of employers, that should not mean RTBU officials sign a surrender agreement. We can’t accept this rigged system as providing a legitimate outcome.

Instead, union members should begin now to discuss and prepare the organisation of effective industrial action, even if it doesn’t have formal legal protections. Lots of other unions have acted outside of the law to protect their conditions and rail workers should do the same if it comes to it.

The preparations for this type of action by themselves would put pressure on the company, letting Metro know that their attacks will not go unanswered.

There is a proud tradition among public transport unions of beating the boss’s laws through industrial action. This year the RTBU celebrated 50 years since the famous tram workers leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines for ‘illegal’ industrial action.

Over one million workers throughout Australia went on strike demanding O’Shea’s release. He was freed after a week.

So far, the union officials have baulked at the idea of unprotected industrial action. Instead they have begun a leafleting and petition campaign aimed at the general public. While it’s correct to try and win support from public transport users, our struggle can’t be outsourced to the rest of the community. We need to take action ourselves that puts pressure on the bosses.

The leafleting should be used to cut across the propaganda of Metro and the mainstream media. Union members can themselves explain this dispute to commuters, with the full confidence that there is no sympathy for corporate greed in Australia today.

Frustration among commuters about the impacts of industrial action can also be addressed in this way. By giving plenty of notice about the possibility of defensive industrial action, commuters can plan in advance for potential delays, or even consider taking a day of personal leave or working from home.

A mass meeting of union members will take place in early October. This will be an important opportunity to build solidarity between the different divisions of the union, and to counter the divide and rule tactics of management. It should also be a forum for us to discuss how to take the campaign forward without waiting for the courts.

Some of Metro’s managers have arrogantly commented that if the company doesn’t win this time, they will win next time.

The implication is that rail staff should just roll over now and stop wasting time and energy. But a victory in this dispute would draw a clear line in the sand, and it would give rail workers the confidence to get better organised on the job. The basic position should be to say, “Not one step back!”

A win for rail workers could also give a boost to the campaign for public transport to be brought back into public hands. If we get our way, the greedy profiteers might not even be here next time around!

By a public transport worker

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