In early December the Federal Court ruled in favour of Metro Trains, upholding a decision stopping the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) from organising protected industrial action in defence of decent wages and conditions.
In a gloating email to staff, Metro’s CEO made it clear that from his point of view the court ruling puts an end to the prospect of workers taking any legally protected action. The implication is that we should just accept the reduction in conditions the company has put forward.
Draft agreements proposed by the company include provisions to cut public holiday pay and travel time. Management also want the ability to move workers start and finish locations and introduce the basis for split shifts, i.e. second-class jobs with lower pay and worse conditions.
Working conditions for rail staff are commuting conditions for public transport users. Any reduction will result in a less reliable and less safe service. But all Metro management cares about is profit.
In meetings with activists after the decision, RTBU officials tested the mood by softly suggesting that perhaps we should just accept the bosses’ demands. The mood of the workers however is much more determined and a debate was held about how to push the campaign forward. Delegates also discussed appealing the court decision.
The union leaders suggested that some members were “greedy” and might be bought off by a pay increase. The officials also focused on the less-than-ideal turnout at some union meetings and suggested that the mood for struggle is low.
This is a false argument. We should not forget that 99% of members voted to take industrial action, and that there is strong support for the slogan “our conditions are not for sale”. Members see protecting conditions as primary, not pay.
While some meetings have had small turnouts, one meeting did pull dozens of thinking members from across the grades. There is clearly the potential for a core of motivated activists to coalesce and begin the process of putting this dispute on the fighting trajectory it needs.
The weaknesses that do exist aren’t mainly because of low morale or greed. Less-than-ideal meeting turn outs are primarily because the union leaders have not put forward a fighting strategy that has enthused the ranks into action.
For working people to put their time and energy into union activity they need to feel that there is a clear purpose that can bring results. Gimmicks and stunts are not motivating on their own. Worse still, politely lobbying pro-corporate politicians or making vague appeals to ‘the public’ to carry out the struggle on our behalf can be demoralising.
While its correct to try and pursue a course of protected industrial action, this should never have been the only trick up our sleeve. We know from the experience in Sydney last year that the courts nearly always side with the bosses and have form in taking away our right to strike.
A number of other options are open to us to pressure the company and force them to adhere to our just demands to protect jobs and conditions. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Appeal the decision
While we should have no faith in the courts the union should still appeal the Federal Court decision. In the first instance it delays things and it’s the company, not us who are under time pressure. For example, they are already running late on rolling out new trains and want a new agreement in place to progress things. Secondly, this decision is an attack on all workers’ right to strike. We need to do what we can to oppose it so that it doesn’t reinforce bad precedents for future disputes.
2. Work to rule
At the moment workers go outside the rules to do lots of little things that help the company by making the public transport system run more smoothly. E.g. often meal breaks aren’t taken at the right times, or workers turn a blind eye to having less staff than is required on a task, or work fatiguing overtime. We could immediately end all this and start working to the exact rules outlined in the current agreement. In some instances, this would result in pressure on Metro’s targets and the fines they pay.
3. Put heat on Labor
We know from the union leaders themselves that the state Labor government has the power to force Metro to withdraw their legal manoeuvre and reinstate our right to take protected industrial action. Apparently they have been asked to do this but have refused. What is the point of the RTBU being affiliated to the Labor Party when they oppose our right to strike? If Labor continue to refuse the RTBU should disaffiliate from the party and withdraw all funding and support. In addition, protests, pickets and occupations of MPs offices should be organised to highlight their anti-union stance.
Rather than preparing to roll over the union leaders should keep up the fight and pursue these sorts of actions. At the same time, we should prepare for the possibility that we might have to take action that’s not sanctioned by the courts.
If the laws are so bad that they hinder us from defending our jobs and conditions then this justifies bad laws being ignored. The history of the trade union movement in Australia is encrusted with proud examples of this.
If thousands of workers took industrial action at the same time, regardless of court rulings, it would not be viable for the courts and the bosses to pursue everyone. If our action coincided with protected strikes by Yarra Trams and V/Line workers it would help highlight the unjust nature of the industrial laws and could be a focal point to rally the rest of the union movement around.
The potential to fight still exists, let’s turn up the pressure until we win!
By a public transport worker