With no headway being made in negotiations between Metro Trains and the Rail, Tram & Bus Union (RTBU), railway workers in Melbourne have voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action. If stop work action takes place it will be the first time since 1997 that workers have stopped the train network. Below The Socialist interviews a Metro worker and RTBU member involved in the dispute.
The Socialist: Why did Metro workers vote 98% in favour of taking industrial action?
“Our enterprise bargaining agreement expired on June 30. We asked management to start negotiating last Christmas. They’ve stalled us ever since. I think the big vote in favour of action reflects deep frustration with management’s attempts to erode our conditions at work. It seems like every week they have a new plan to mess with us!”
The Socialist: What issues are at stake in the negotiations?
“We have an extensive log of claims. We’re asking for new allowances to reflect new work practices and technologies. Pay rises are also important but they aren’t the central issue.
“Melbourne’s rail system is badly run down because of 30 years of both Labor and the Liberals under-investing and privatisation. It needs a huge upgrade. Metro management are trying to use that situation as an excuse to divide up the workforce, wind back training requirements for drivers and scrap safety rules.
“For example they want to abolish rules that say a train driver can only drive 200km in a shift, and can’t drive more than twice on the same line in a shift. Both of these things are crucial to keeping drivers alert and passengers safe.”
The Socialist: What actions could take place?
“We voted in favour of 37 specific measures. Many of them are things like overtime bans. We also voted to be able to strike for up to 48 hours. One of the best things we voted for was a package of measures that mean we can give commuters free travel days, which stops Metro making profits.”
The Socialist: What do you say to public transport users who could be affected?
“It’s Metro management who have created this situation by dragging out negotiations and driving to undermine our conditions and safety standards. They could bring this dispute to an end quickly if they dropped their campaign against us. If we strike it will be because of management’s lust for profits.
“Public transport users and Metro workers are natural allies. We share interests in a safe, expanded and properly staffed system. On the other hand Metro management represent profit interests. They have made $235 million since they took over the system and are hell bent on making more.
“Both users and workers alike would be better off without a corporation in charge of this vital public service. Instead it would be better to have management elected by representatives of staff and commuters. Figures published by The Age a few years ago even showed that it would be cheaper for taxpayers to scrap privatisation and operate public transport free at the point of use.”
The Socialist: Can you really take on a big company like Metro and win?
“Yes we can, but it requires the right strategy. We can’t expect the state Labor government to help us. Labor support privatisation and therefore they support the “right” of Metro management to exploit us for profits. Labor are the ones who gave Metro the contract in the first place.
“In order to win rank and file members of the RTBU need to be more involved. We need collective discussions and decision making in order to ensure that any action we take is effective.
“Alongside mass meetings of members we need information that we can give to commuters to explain what the dispute is about. Metro are doing their best to turn commuters against us and we need to combat that.
“If the members are able to exercise more control over the dispute, and we can win over the public, it’s certainly possible for us to win and that would be a step forward for everyone who wants a safe, well run public transport system in this city.”