Metro Trains’ management got their way in April when their dodgy workplace agreement was voted up 51% to 49%. While the result is a blow to Melbourne rail workers, winding back a number of hard won conditions, it also exposed the shaky grip the top leaders of the union have over the members.
The new agreement will further spread the scourge of precarious part time work and give management the ‘flexibility’ to alter rosters. Staff can be forced to move working locations and training opportunities will be undermined. While train drivers stand to lose the most, the new agreement is bad for railway operations workers too.
Management sought to dress up some of their attacks in progressive rhetoric claiming they were assisting more women into work, but the opposite is true. Many women railway workers saw through management’s divide and rule strategy and campaigned against approving this agreement explaining it was a bad deal overall.
It’s clear that many workers voted ‘yes’ under the pressure of a scare campaign that was based on lies. The top leaders of the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) first told people this was a ‘good deal’ for operations staff. When this was proved wrong, they resorted to the false claim that this deal would lock in pay and conditions against the economic threat of the COVID-19.
A ‘yes’ vote was supported by a shady alliance between Metro management and key leaders of RTBU. In opposition to this a grassroots ‘no’ campaign sprang up bringing together delegates and activists from both divisions of the union.
The leaders of the locomotive division of the union, which organises train drivers, also called for people to vote ‘no’. Scores of workers rang and texted around their workmates to mobilise the vote.
It’s estimated that if only 15 or 20 extra people voted ‘no’ management’s plans would have been shattered. The entire organisation of Metro and the machine of the top union leaders is clearly much less powerful and convincing than many people thought. They only got over the line by a whisker.
The worst case scenario that all of the operations division members would vote ‘yes’ and approve the deal by a two thirds majority was avoided thanks to the activist ‘no’ campaign. It shows that sweeping change in the union is possible through consistent work. Last minute attempts to challenge the voting process and outcome are being explored but are unlikely to succeed.
Many workers, some with decades of membership, are feeling betrayed and are now resigning from the union. But resigning from the union is only a gift to Metro management. A deunionised workforce will be easier to attack in the years ahead.
Resigning will also make it harder to change the union for the better. If we don’t want to be sold out we need to elect leaders that genuinely represent the interests of rail workers across all the job grades.
Many of the current leaders are more interested in keeping sweet with management, and preparing their personal path to parliament, than fighting for the members. Right now we need to turn our attention to the twin tasks of resisting the implementation of the worst aspects of the new agreement, and winning improvements on the job.
Poor health and safety and the lack of personal protective equipment could be one area to start with. We should demand membership meetings to plan resistance and action.
In the medium term, the best way to foster real solidarity and understanding between workers in different roles is to build a network of rank and file activists. That could provide on the job leadership and articulate a new type of fighting trade unionism. That can be the basis for an alternative to the careerists who have sold us out.
Fighting on the job to defend and extend what we have is the way forward now. Just because some of our conditions are no longer protected in the new agreement it’s not guaranteed that the bosses will be able to act immediately. If we use our collective power we can resist, and even improve our situation, despite the fact that the new agreement contains attacks.
This is the way all of our past conditions were won. It wasn’t lawyers or the top union officials that got us decent wages and conditions, they came from fights waged on the job. We need a union leadership that stands in these traditions, and links the fight for wages and conditions to the need to kick out the private operators that exploit workers and commuters alike.
By a public transport worker