UPDATE: The RTBU has announced a suspension of industrial action and renewed talks with the company. Further updates will be posted as information comes to hand.
Metro Trains workers are set to take industrial action in Melbourne next week. Company bosses have refused to move from a hard-line position of shredding conditions in exchange for paltry pay rises. Negotiations for a renewed employment agreement with operations staff have been ongoing for months.
At the end of July a ballot for legal “protected industrial action” returned a 99% yes vote on a turnout of 58% of Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) members. Actions which can be taken with notice to the company range from limited work bans up to rolling 48 hour strikes.
Initially there were limited work bans planned which were designed to hit company revenue and give commuters a win. These were met with harsh retaliation by Metro management and now the gloves are off for both sides.
Late on Thursday night workers received emails from the highest level of management that said the company would do everything in their power to undermine all planned action. Management also pointed out that during the last dispute in 2015, the Andrews Labor state government sided with them in court to oppose workers strike action.
Staff participating in legally protected industrial action will have their pay reduced by up to 100% according to the avalanche of threatening emails from Metro bosses. In a clear effort to divide and rule, different grades of workers will face varying levels of pay deduction for varying work bans.
Management’s plan is to break the solidarity among union members by targeting those who may be in tighter financial situations. In a show of how bad Labor’s anti-worker “Fair Work Act” is managers referred to sections of the law that outlaw paying striking workers.
Victorian Trades Hall, the state’s peak union body, and the wider union movement should assist the RTBU in the time honoured tradition of organising a strike fund. This could be essential in maintaining unity on the front lines of struggle by assisting the most precarious union members pay their bills.
On Friday afternoon the Federal Court ruled in Metro’s favour and granted an injunction against station staff leaving ticket barriers open on Monday. This was no real surprise as the court system and the laws it enforces are set up to protect corporate interests, not to support workers.
Metro’s elite lawyers argued that the action would effectively give a ‘free travel day’ to commuters on two Mondays, the busiest days. That would hit the company’s revenue hard they said. The whole point of industrial action is to hit the bosses where it hurts, their profits!
Regardless commuters who don’t wish to touch on during action won’t be trapped inside stations. Many stations don’t have barriers.
Where barriers exist some are normally left open in case of emergency or to allow unrestricted access for prams and wheelchairs. And workers always open ticket barriers went asked by commuters to avoid potentially dangerous confrontations and stay safe.
Despite the court injunction other action by rail operations workers will go ahead. Beginning Monday 12 August drivers will refuse to skip stations or turn around mid-journey to meet bureaucratic performance targets. On 12 August and and 19 August booking office staff will refuse to top up Myki tickets while inspectors will refuse to check them. All workers will refuse to wear uniforms.
In court, Metro said that police could check tickets instead of Authorised Officers. While possible, that is unlikely. Such outright anti-union action would be entirely unacceptable to and deeply resented by RTBU members.
Both the RTBU and the Police Association are affiliated to the collective union body Victorian Trades Hall. If Police Association members cut across RTBU industrial action then their affiliation should be considered untenable and consequences should flow. We can’t allow one union to scab on another.
Transit police and PSOs hate being ordered around by corporate managers as if they were private security employed by Metro. Frontline rail staff know this. Police are not trained to use the ticket checking machines that rail workers use and are not usually involved in the paperwork for ticketing offences.
A four hour strike of all operations staff was also announced on Friday afternoon to take place between 10am and 2pm on Tuesday 27 August. Metro bosses will almost certainly seek to have this cancelled in the misnamed “Fair Work Commission”.
That is what happened when Sydney train drivers planned a 24 hour stoppage early last year. The RTBU should begin making contingency plans to ignore such a ruling and escalate strike action further and wider in that case.
Sally McManus who heads the Australian Council of Trade Unions has correctly said there’s no problem breaking unjust laws. These important words should be followed by action.
Despite the setback in the Federal Court, the action beginning on Monday is still likely to affect Metro’s revenue and impact their ability to cook the books on performance targets to avoid fines. RTBU Members can be proud of standing up for themselves.
In the weeks to come Metro workers will get a taste of the potential power to win this dispute by bringing to life the slogan “We run the network!”. To seize the possibility of a decisive victory the “members action committee” established last week should be rapidly upgraded into a fully elected strike leadership committee.
It should then hold regular mass meetings to properly plan, prepare and carry out escalating actions and negotiations until the corporate bullies at Metro are beaten, conditions secured, and a decent pay rise is won.
By a public transport worker