Station staff on Melbourne’s suburban train network have forged a campaign to defend their jobs from an attack concocted by the Labor state government and private operator Metro Trains.
A proposal was discovered in late December to ultimately remove control desks – crucial infrastructure used to provide network information to passengers and respond to emergencies and disruptions – on the South Morang and Hurstbridge line stations.
Suspecting a plot to further de-skill and reduce the workforce, staff responded with a series of workplace meetings to discuss how to overturn the plans. Metro reacted in defensive internal staff memos claiming the plan would provide an “improved passenger experience”.
However, a not-so-secret planning document uncovered Metro’s real intentions: to boost their profits through a reduction in their wages bill. The document revealed the plan was aimed at cutting jobs at control desk stations “over time through attrition”.
Metro are clearly seeking to offset the cost of increased staffing levels from the introduction of 24-hour weekend trains and new stations.
Documents confirm the plan to cut jobs was agreed between the Labor state government and Metro during contract negotiations last year. Ignoring the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s (RTBU) call for public ownership and operation, Labor offered Metro a free pass.
Documents also boast of an “opportunity” to remove control desks from other lines should this current plan succeed. By dealing a blow to one section of the workforce, then repeating the attacks on other lines, Metro are attempting to carry out a divide and conquer strategy.
New RTBU delegates were elected and a union meeting was attended by staff from across the network. The meeting agreed to establish an action committee open to all union members who want to fight the proposal.
Actions were staged at Clifton Hill and Reservoir stations to warn passengers of the impact on safety and service levels. These were well-attended, especially given the burden shift-work places on rail workers lives.
Undoubtedly Metro and the state government would prefer to avoid public criticism given recent media scrutiny of poor performance and politicised level crossing removal priorities. But their biggest fear is the potential for industrial action. Stop work action is already being discussed among a significant layer of staff.
Metro’s initial tactic was for management to spread rumours Metro faces a heavy fine if the control desks were not moved, sending a demoralising message that “it’s going ahead no matter what”.
However, by demonstrating a preparedness to fight, the union campaign has so far boosted staff confidence. The company’s propaganda campaign is now behind schedule, and their attempts to mislead union members with informal chats have backfired.
The staff backlash has forced Metro to concede in meetings with the RTBU that the proposal could be abandoned. Company representatives even outlined a strategy for backing down and saving face, suggesting their contract has a penalty waiver which could be triggered if they advise Public Transport Victoria (PTV) of “significant risks”.
When asked what it would take to get the proposal off the table, management stated clearly that it can be taken off the table by PTV or Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan.
Labor faces a conundrum. In order to convince working class people to vote for them at the upcoming state election they want to say they are creating jobs with new public transport projects. But this plan exposes their support for Metro to profit from essential public services by attacking jobs.
If union members exploit this contradiction and target the state government demanding that they back down, they can win. By Metro’s own admission, the Labor state government is the key pressure point.
With this being the case ‘consultation’ meetings with Metro management are a waste of time. Metro will simply use these meetings to draw the union into the process of implementing their job cutting proposal.
A motion has already been passed in action committee meetings calling for a protest at Jacinta Allan’s office. Union members should organise this as a matter of urgency and use workplace meetings and actions at train stations to build for the biggest possible turnout.
The Socialist Party calls for:
– Retaining all current rostered positions and filling all vacancies immediately.
– Upgrading ‘control desks’ in situ and providing more staff training.
– Re-opening closed stations and creating new full-time positions at all new stations including Mernda extension, Rosanna and Cranbourne/Pakenham elevated rail, staffed first to last train.
– A publicly owned and operated public transport system that puts the needs of commuters and staff before private profit.
By a Metro worker