Melbourne’s unique 250 kilometre-long tram network is one of the city’s many tourist attractions. Not only is it an important form of transportation, it also provides secure employment to around 1000 people.
Yarra Trams, the privatised company responsible for the network across the CBD and inner suburbs, has been fighting the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s (RTBU) push to negotiate a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) to strengthen pay and conditions.
The union has been fighting for a new EBA for nearly eight months. The old agreement expired in 2015.
The RTBU was pushing for a reasonable 24% pay increase over four years as against Yarra Trams’ offer which was half of that.
However, it was also pushing to erode many of the union’s hard-won gains, especially the cap on part-time work which it wants to increase from 4% to 15% (although it initially wanted that figure to be 35%). This would lead to insecure work for more than a third of the work force.
Keolis Downer-owned Yarra Trams doubled its profits to $18 million in 2018, but still claimed that such measures are needed for “greater flexibility”.
Tram workers rejected two of Yarra Trams’ EBA offers by a margin of 94%, and in January and February organised several four-hour strikes. During that time, the public transport minister Melissa Horne claimed it was not her place “to get involved” in the dispute, although she did petition the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to terminate the union’s proposed industrial action scheduled for during the Melbourne Grand Prix between March 12–15.
But on February 25, the RTBU and Victorian government reached an agreement to withdraw the proposed industrial action over the Grand Prix in return for the government and Yarra Trams withdrawing its application to terminate or suspend the industrial action in the FWC.
Then on February 28, the RTBU announced on its Facebook page that its delegates and members had unanimously endorsed an in-principle agreement with Yarra Trams which includes a 14% wage increase over the life of the agreement, with back pay, along with strengthened conditions and allowances.
Meanwhile, the Victorian RTBU branch is also working for a better EBA for its train drivers in Metro Trains and the regional network V/Line.
The Fair Work Act 2009 makes it difficult for workers to organise for their rights. Individual strikes as part of protected industrial action, like those being organised by the RTBU, are the only type permissible under the industrial relations system.
[Leo Crnogorcevic is a university student and member of the Socialist Alliance.]