By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — Following threats by the Victorian government to close down public transport services if unions did not lift maintenance bans, the Public Transport Corporation announced on August 6 that it would close the Upfield, Alamein and Williamstown lines and part of the Hurstbridge line from midnight.
The following day, the Sandringham and Epping lines were also taken out of service.
The closure was announced by Premier Jeff Kennett, rather than public transport minister Robin Cooper, indicating that Kennett was responsible for upping the ante. "The government has no hesitation in closing the system down, and we don't say that lightly", he said.
Trades Hall Council secretary Leigh Hubbard accused the government of "manufacturing a showdown" and using commuters as pawns in his attempt to break unions.
The Public Transport Corporation stood down 24 maintenance workers, and hired contractors to repair defective trains.
On August 7, contractors were brought in to the Epping maintenance yard under police escort. When the stood-down workers attempted to prevent them entering the yard, three were arrested.
Dave Kerin, an organiser with the Public Transport Union railways division, told Green Left what happened next.
"The police agreed to let the stood-down workers go in one by one to talk to the contractors. Each one went in and explained to the contractors that they were doing their job, that they had families to support and what the industrial action was about.
"After that, the contractors all left. The three guys who were arrested were later released without being charged."
Following talks in the Industrial Relations Commission, the unions agreed to lift bans for a week so that defective trains could be repaired, and the PTC agreed to reinstate the stood-down workers and not to use outside contractors.
The truce is likely to be only temporary, because the government is still stonewalling the unions' claim for a wage increase and a better redundancy deal before the public transport system is privatised at the end of the year.
The unions have claimed a 10% pay increase, but have said they will accept a 6% increase with no trade-offs. The government and PTC have offered a 6% increase in exchange for 6% "efficiency savings" including cuts to holiday pay and sick leave, longer working hours and reduced staffing levels.
The government is also demanding that redundancy payouts be capped at 10 years' service.
Kerin said that the unions' guerilla strategy is working and that the campaign would be successful as long as the unions stay united. The closure of the rail lines was an attempt by the government to "set up" the unions, and to speed up the privatisation agenda.
The fact that the government threw down the gauntlet to the rail workers while leaving tram and bus workers alone suggests that its strategy might be to split these sections away from the rail workers.
Many tram workers privately express concern that the leadership of the tramways division of the PTU is not committed to seeing the dispute through and would be prepared to negotiate a separate deal. The Di Gregorio tramway leadership has previously agreed to government "reforms" such as driver-only operation and ticket machines.
Kerin, however, expressed confidence in the campaign so far. "We're in a position where the PTC is being affected by our tactics, and the government has been forced to withdraw. Public support is swinging towards the unions."