By Kerry O'Callaghan
MELBOURNE —Tram services on the January 26 Australia Day holiday were hit by a 24-hour strike over timetable cuts.
The strike action was initiated by members at the Preston tram depot, who were given special Australia Day timetables providing trams 30 minutes apart on usually busy routes, and with numerous Australia Day activities in the city, the Australian Tennis Open and a Seekers concert all expected to draw thousands.
The Public Transport Union eventually received an assurance from Public Transport Corporation management that extra trams would be made available. However, the Preston delegate was informed the following day that no more trams would be provided.
In response, the Preston members resolved on January 20 to strike for 24 hours on Australia Day if the promise by management was not kept. A stop-work meeting at South Melbourne depot on January 24 resolved unanimously to join Preston in the strike. Both depots also placed bans on their routes, and asked other depots to observe these.
Since the agreement between the government, the PTC and PTU officials in early 1993 which included the phasing out of tram conductors and introduction of driver-only trams, workers have been struggling to provide a service in the face of the apparent determination of the government to run the system into the ground. Examples include:
- The introduction of driver-only services on weekends and after 8 p.m. weeknights, without provision of the ticket machines that were supposed to go with it. This has caused delays of up to 45 minutes between trams.
- Staff shortages and cutbacks on maintenance lead to frequent cancellation of services.
- The replacement of Melbourne's famous old W-class trams by less comfortable and less reliable Z-class trams, contrary to previous assurances by transport minister Alan Brown, is causing further delays as the W-class trams are being removed faster than the constantly breaking down Z class trams can be repaired.
- In December 1992, the PTC scrapped tram timetables and cut back services in what was supposed to be a temporary measure for the Christmas holiday period. Trams ran on this reduced schedule until December 1993, when another reduced "holiday" timetable was introduced.
To the surprise of many members, the strike was supported by PTU officials. Assistant secretary Lou Di Gregorio told members at one of the stop-work meetings that he recognised that many members were frustrated by the lack of action by the union over the past year, and pledged that the union would now come out fighting.
Unfortunately, this renewal of militancy on the part of the officials did not seem to be transmitted to other depots. No other depots held stop-work meetings. Instead, the resolution was voted on at often poorly attended depot meetings, with the result that Preston and South Melbourne were the only depots that went out. There was also widespread ignoring of the ban on Preston and South Melbourne routes.
The lack of support from other depots can be partly explained by the inactivity of the union over the recent period. The lack of action by the union leadership in the face of constant attacks has resulted in demoralisation and cynicism among members. Many union activists have left the service, leaving a membership with no experience of the militant actions of past years and a poor consciousness on solidarity and abiding by union decisions.
While the strike was a limited success, with 25% of routes being affected, the action indicates that the tradition of militancy on the tramways has not been completely broken, and signals a possible beginning to the rebuilding of that militancy across the industry.