By Tully Bates
MELBOURNE — Public transport workers went on strike for 48 hours March 8-10, causing serious disruption to the Grand Prix. Predictably, the move sparked outrage from the state government and media, with Premier Jeff Kennett describing the strike as "one of the greatest acts of betrayal we have seen by any group of unionists in many a year".
Grand Prix officials claimed that the strike would cost $10 million in ticket sales.
The strike follows the breakdown of protracted negotiations between the state government and public transport unions over plans to split the Public Transport Corporation into several state or privately run corporations, and a new enterprise bargaining agreement.
The government has refused to give any guarantees on wages, terms or conditions in the new organisations, or that the 9500 current PTC employees will be offered jobs at all. It has also refused to guarantee that new superannuation arrangements will not disadvantage employees.
The government rejected the unions' claim for a 10% wage increase over 27 months, offering 6% over 18 months. Transport minister Robin Cooper, who had previously agreed in principle to the 10% increase, now claims that the government cannot offer more than 6% because this was the amount recently accepted by teachers.
At a stop-work meeting on March 6, more than 700 members of the Public Transport Union, Australian Services Union and Electrical Trades Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of the strike. Media reports claimed that the meeting was "stacked" by railway workers, and that tram and bus workers opposed the strike.
According to Chantal Wynter, a Resistance member and tram conductor from Preston Depot, these reports were exaggerated. "The majority of tram workers wanted to strike", she said.
"Any division has been caused by officials from the PTU's Tramways Division, who have been going around telling members that it would be possible to work out a deal with the government, but that the railway workers are wanting to strike and just dragging the tram and bus workers along with them. The majority of PTU members, even those who disagree with the strike, understand the need for unity, and there is no way anyone will scab."
Wynter suggested that some tram workers were reluctant to take industrial action because of the record of their leadership in selling out previous disputes, such as the five-week tram strike in 1990. Tramways Division secretary Lou Di Gregorio was booed when he appeared at the stop-work meeting.
Wynter is concerned that the resolution adopted by the meeting had no firm plans for further action, leaving it up to the union leaderships and delegates. "We mustn't allow the leadership of the Tramways Division to do any deals separately from the rest of the PTU. Any proposal must be ratified by the entire PTU membership at a mass meeting of all members", she said.