Officials of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union called off a four-hour stoppage that would have brought Melbourne’s train network to a halt on August 27. This comes after a final-hour ploy by Metro Trains’ management to thwart work bans. Despite this, union members remain prepared to fight for a decent enterprise agreement.
Metro bosses’ desperate tactics to ward off industrial action included threats of docked pay, a refusal to grant annual leave requests, and demands for information about who intended to take action.
Management won a federal court injunction against workers opening ticketing barriers, and even threatened one group of ticket inspectors with a total loss of pay for participating in a planned ban on checking tickets.
A patronising memo from the Chief Operating Officer told workers, “there are many variables that are considered when calculating pay deductions”, as if it was a purely technical decision. In reality it was a deliberate pressure tactic, completely enshrined in law by Labor’s anti-worker Fair Work Act.
These laws force unions to jump through numerous hoops to open up a short period in which action can be legally taken, but only after giving long notice periods which allow companies to plan a counter-offensive.
Metro hoped their attack would divide and demoralise staff, safeguard their revenue, and generate public confusion that could be blamed on the union. It is a credit to Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) members that they responded with determination to succeed.
With workers standing their ground, Metro turned up the heat. The court injunction required the RTBU to buy costly newspaper ads at short notice declaring no ‘free travel day’. Unsurprisingly, the bosses’ media did not provide ad space in time. This was clearly beyond the union’s control, but Metro used it to threaten further court action unless union officials called off work bans.
Emboldened by events turning in their favour, reports are that Metro have barely budged on their hard-line position of slashing working conditions. At the time of publication, Metro was still seeking to decrease rostered days off, reduce overtime payments for part timers, lock in low pay rises, and they still refuse to rule out using new technology to cut jobs.
Strike action is no longer immediately posed. Under the misnamed Fair Work rules the period for ‘protected’ legal action has expired. Given many members think that a decisive victory still requires industrial action, RTBU officials have requested the Fair Work Commission extend this date.
Need for rank and file control
On the weekend before work bans were to start, a lack of any genuine forum for union members to co-ordinate their efforts meant that workers were left in the dark. Metro sought to exploit this to spread confusion and divide the workforce.
To overcome this, a strike leadership committee comprised of elected workplace representatives is necessary. This would allow union members control over strategic decisions.
In 2018 a battle erupted – known as the control desk dispute – when management planned to slash station staff jobs. It should be remembered that workers successfully defeated the plan not through legal manoeuvres and “clever” negotiation but because action committees allowed rank and file members to direct union officials towards an effective, fighting strategy.
Playing by the rules rigged in favour of big business means that a path to ‘legal’ strike action is in doubt, and Metro are likely to use the courts to block this. RTBU officials already withdrew the August 27 strike under pressure of Metro’s legal threats.
Even if the Fair Work Commission extends the period of legally protected industrial action Metro could request intervention from the state government or federal court to head off any effective action.
But none of this has to tie our hands. There are many examples of defiant mass action turning unjust laws into an unenforceable “dead letter”. If Metro refuse to budge strike action should be taken whether it is deemed legal or not.
Currently, RTBU officials are continuing negotiations with Metro, but from a weakened position. Any deal offered up now is likely to be shoddy. If a dodgy deal is proposed rank and file members should campaign for a majority ‘no’ vote and begin preparing for a return to industrial action in earnest.
By a public transport worker