Around 300 people rallied at Flinders Street Station in mid-October. They were opposing Metro Trains’ attempt to undermine working conditions in negotiations for a new enterprise agreement.
Having used legal manoeuvres to block legally protected strike action, Metro insulted workers by offering a pay rise in exchange for the selling away of important conditions. Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) members rejected the offer, and the union launched legal proceedings seeking to restore its ability to organise legal industrial action.
In rally speeches, union officials focused mostly on pay and calls for public ownership of the network. They correctly explained how Metro’s accrual of hundreds of millions of dollars in profit over the years comes off the backs of workers and robs wealth from the city.
While the call to bring the network back into public hands is important, it’s not the only issue at play. For example, workers at the publicly owned V/Line have also faced attempts to undermine their conditions.
Without democratic control and management – for example an elected board that includes workers and commuters – cost cutting bureaucrats appointed by right-wing governments will always seek to run the network along corporate lines.
Calls for public ownership would have been more powerful if the union officials had linked this to the immediate issues being disputed, and outlined a concrete strategy to defeat Metro management.
For socialists, all profits come from the wealth that workers create, so the union’s demand for a 6% per year wage increase is really quite modest. While the union officials tended to emphasise pay, the few workers who spoke at the rally made it clear that this dispute is about much more than money. As one put it, “we are fighting for the preservation of our conditions and for better conditions”.
A drivers’ delegate explained how Metro want more power to change rosters and work locations. That would make the challenge that shift workers face in managing our personal lives much harder. He also explained that Metro want to include a clause that would allow them to alter the agreement “whenever they see fit”.
Metro also want to reduce overtime penalty entitlements for part-time staff and split more well-paid full-time jobs into part-time positions. Metro use flowery language about “flexible work options to suit the needs of a diverse workforce”, but what they actually want is more sub-standard jobs on lower pay.
They want to increase competition between workers for overtime shifts and full-time promotions, sowing divisions to frustrate union solidarity.
Given the swelling ranks of underemployed and unemployed workers, it would be a huge mistake to endorse any deal that further erodes what’s left of quality, full-time, unionised jobs in Australia.
Metro’s attacks can be stopped, but it requires a plan designed to hit the company where it hurts: their profits. The union’s legal case is important, but the officials should also pursue every other option available to restore protected strike action.
One issue the union officials didn’t mention at the rally is the fact that Victorian Industrial Relations Minister, Tim Pallas, has the power to compel Metro to abandon their legal tricks which have hindered our right to strike.
By refusing to act, Pallas and the Labor government have decided to take the side of management in this dispute. In many ways this is unsurprising, as they sided with the bosses the last time we were negotiating an agreement. The ‘Fair Work’ laws that are hindering us from taking effective action were also crafted by Labor.
The RTBU, and the union movement more broadly, should demand that the government immediately force Metro to drop their legal manoeuvres. If the government and the company refuse, we need to explore other ways to force Metro’s hand.
For example, on-the-job action such as working to rule and tightening up on safety issues could put a lot of pressure on the company. Mass sick days and other unconventional actions could also be used without putting the union in breach of the law.
But this sort of action requires proper organisation. The union officials need to convene more mass meetings to both explain the dynamics of the dispute and prepare for action. The bringing together of the members is also important preparation if all else fails and unprotected strike action is necessary.
By a public transport worker