The dispute between Metro Trains and public transport workers in Melbourne has reached a critical new phase. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Metro has put forward a sub-standard offer that slashes the conditions of many of its workers. The company is insisting on a vote, with the ballot opening on April 9.
The offer particularly targets the conditions of train drivers. As such, the division of the union that covers drivers is advocating a ‘no’ vote.
But a different division of the union covers other Metro workers, including station staff, signallers and other operations staff. Disappointingly, the leaders of this division – which represents a majority of Metro workers – have given up the fight and have lined up with management to advocate a ‘yes’ vote. We now have a struggle being waged against the bosses, as well as within the union.
Rather than demanding that Metro introduce pandemic-related job security and safety measures, the top leaders of the Rail, Tram & Bus Union (RTBU) in Victoria are trying to scare members into voting ‘yes’ with the threat of job losses. But an important section of the workforce is beginning to see through the lies. Hopefully unity can be maintained and a ‘no’ vote can win.
The key feature of this dispute has been Metro’s determination to undermine train driver jobs and conditions. These workers have long had decent working conditions that were won over decades through determined struggle.
Attacks on drivers
Metro has longer-term plans to turn drivers jobs into lower paid and more insecure positions. In the immediate term they want to split more of the work into part-time roles, reduce training and safety standards, and push workers into longer commutes by changing where drivers start shifts.
They think the best way of achieving this is to divide the workforce and play the higher-paid drivers against the somewhat lower paid station staff and other operations staff. Unfortunately, the top leaders of the RTBU have fallen into line with the bosses plan.
Despite very high union membership on the railways, conditions have been slowly eroded over years. Metro already has a great deal of power over where authorised officers start their shifts and station staff have no rights to be appointed close to home. A growing majority of station staff have sub-standard part time jobs and are forced to compete with each other for limited overtime and promotions.
While attacking the conditions of drivers, Metro threw in a few small sweeteners for operations staff to try and get the agreement over the line. These include somewhat limiting Metro’s power over where authorised officers start shifts, a modest increase to parental leave, giving part time workers access to shifts that would otherwise be done by labour hire casuals, and expanded access to trauma leave.
Not even good for station staff
But even taking this into account, the offer is not a step forward overall. Among other things, it diminishes the pay grade of station staff for their first six months on the job, and locks in yearly roster reviews which in practice have resulted in worse rosters.
Metro have tried to make the cuts to conditions easier to swallow by offering a pay rise which amounts to 14% over four years. They have also yielded on their refusal to back pay to cover the negotiation period. This type of approach from management was to be expected which is why many members took up the slogan “our conditions are not for sale”.
For many years union leaders have bought into this flawed ‘concession bargaining’ approach. Bosses disingenuously give pay rises that carry less value than what they save in reductions to working conditions. This has boosted profits but created widespread low paid and insecure work.
Concession bargaining is a dead end. The simple truth is without a fighting approach, once the conditions are all sold, there will be no more decent pay rises and no conditions left. Metro have made a great deal of profits over the years they can afford to both pay us properly and offer good working conditions.
Divide and conquer
Metro’s strategy in this dispute has been classic divide and conquer. Last year Metro sought court injunctions against planned industrial action by operations staff and won. When the company said the conditions of injunctions weren’t adhered to, that blocked all further legally protected industrial action.
Metro used the threat of further legal action to press the top leaders of the union to give up on all industrial action and wind down the dispute. The top union leaders opted to play Metro’s game. They countered any suggestion of continuing the fight by promoting a ‘station staff versus the drivers’ mentality. They are running a campaign to talk down the potential of winning anything more.
By contrast the more far-sighted leaders of the train drivers division were determined to explore every option to restore protected industrial action. This was the correct thing to do. Efforts to restore the right to industrial action are still underway.
At a time when tens of thousands of workers suddenly face unemployment, there are genuine concerns about job security. Many are wondering if there could be stand downs in the event that the timetable is reduced.
But rather than insisting that Metro insert new beefed up stand down clauses that guarantee pay and specific rules that protect jobs during a pandemic, the top union leaders have been saying things like “you may not have a job in a few weeks so you should just accept the offer”. This is the height of irresponsibility.
Official union communications dishonestly describe Metro’s offer as ‘a win for job security’, referring to a deviously named ‘sustainable employment’ clause. But rather than committing Metro to really protecting jobs, the clause just lays out principles for how Metro could re-classify people into lower pay grades, move them to new locations or even get rid of them.
If this new offer was so much better for job security Metro wouldn’t be making it, especially if they were about to take advantage of the pandemic to sack lots of staff. This is just another example of the top union leaders chopping and changing their arguments to scare people into voting ‘yes’.
At this stage it is not a foregone conclusion that Metro, with the help of the top union leaders, will be able to gather enough ‘yes’ votes. The arguments for accepting this agreement are weak and many members are starting to see this.
There is a flurry of discussion on social media. and a petition calling for a ‘no’ vote has over 1500 signatures. Activists fighting for a ‘no’ vote are learning that when they patiently discuss the facts, they can convince fellow workers that this is a bad agreement.
That said, there is still a mix of attitudes. Given years of compromising by the union leaders, there are some workers who are pessimistic about the prospects of winning more. But there are also many who do not trust the top union leaders and understand that if we let the drivers’ conditions be cut it will be bad for everyone in the longer term.
This shoddy offer can be voted down, but it will take a concerted effort to fight for every single ‘no’ vote, both amongst the drivers, station staff and all operations staff. We can push the company back if we take the time for patient discussions with our workmates.
We need to vote ‘no’ in order to fend off Metro’s attacks, but also to raise the sights of all workers about what is possible when we stand shoulder to shoulder. A successful ‘no’ vote would also help to put the whole union on firmer ground to continue the fight to protect the wages and conditions of all public transport workers.
– Vote ‘No’ to Metro’s shoddy agreement! For unity across the grades! Keep up the fight to protect working conditions!
– End concession bargaining! Our conditions are not for sale! Fight for a bigger share of the profits our work creates!
– We are stronger together! For a fighting, democratic union that refuses to bow to Metro’s divide and rule tactics.
By a public transport worker