Tram and rail industrial action steps up

Issue 
Tram workers struck for four hours on August 27. This was the first tram strike since 1997. Photo: RTBU/Facebook

An emotional and highly charged stopwork meeting of hundreds of tram workers jammed into Trades Hall on August 27 to hear a report on their dispute with Yarra Trams.

Yarra Trams and Metro Rail workers had called off a planned four-hour strike on August 21 in the hope that the companies would present the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) with a better offer. The better offer never came so the tram workers struck for four hours on August 27. This was the first tram strike since 1997.

The union is negotiating new enterprise agreements with both companies. The previous agreements with them expired on June 30.

State secretary of the Tram and Bus division of the RTBU Phil Altieri told workers that Yarra Trams “left us with no option” but to strike. He explained that Yarra Trams only started to improve its offer to the tram workers after they started industrial action.

The key sticking point in the negotiations is Yarra Trams’ insistence on shifting workers onto a 14-day roster instead of the current seven-day roster. Yarra Trams has refused to provide information about how the proposed 14-day roster would work, making workers suspicious.

The nature of tram shifts means the number of hours an individual works can vary widely from week to week, so tram workers now have a 40-hour work/wage guarantee. If this is spread over 80 hours, workers fear the adjustments to overtime will mean there will be fewer jobs.

Workers also fear the 14-day roster will mean they cannot take their rostered days off in a block, as they do now. Another fear is that the 14-day roster will be implemented in such a way that workers will not be able to swap shifts.

The state government is implementing a plan for all-night public transport on Friday nights and Saturday nights. This means tram and train workers will be doing a lot more night shifts, which makes it even more important to have a rostering system and penalty rate system that compensates workers for working these terrible shifts.

But the Labor government has intervened in the dispute on the side of the bosses, with constant condemnation of the union and the workers for taking industrial action. Premier Daniel Andrews went further on August 27, saying the government would consider joining legal action to stop the industrial action.

Yarra Trams started with an offer of a 9% pay rise over four years, which then shifted to 13% over four years. That is still a very low pay rise given the increase in the number of night-shifts.

Luba Grigorovitch, state secretary of the RTBU told the workers the industrial action “is not about money, it's about the [working] conditions”.

Just before the tram workers’ mass meeting, Metro Rail delegates voted to strike for four hours on September 4. Metro Rail workers will also refuse to wear company uniforms, ban inspecting Myki travel payment cards, hold a one-hour stoppage between 3am and 4am on September 3 and ban station skipping between 9am and midnight.

A meeting of Metro Rail delegates on August 24 rejected Metro Rail's latest offer. It was offering only a 14% pay rise over four years with 5% of this held back until the last year of the agreement.

Metro Rail workers are also fighting to save their working conditions. It wants to introduce 12-hour shifts for all rail workers, poorer penalty rate provisions for part-time station staff and cuts to rostered days off.

One union source said he had never seen rail workers so angry. Bullying letters sent to workers by Metro Rail have only made workers more angry.

Many of the attacks are insidious. There are three big new projects about to begin: a major signalling upgrade; plans to build a new Metro rail tunnel through the CBD; and all-night public transport on Fridays and Saturdays.

Metro Rail is trying to implement different working conditions on these new projects. It is particularly trying to strip away negotiation/consultation rights around rostering and staffing levels.

Another attack on rail workers is Metro's plan to destroy the connectivity of Melbourne's railway system by splitting it into five independent networks, a process known as segmentation. The company is trying to sell this plan to the public as a positive, saying it will cut chronic delays.

Under this plan, the vast majority of drivers would only be trained to drive on the two or three lines in one of the five new rail sectors. This amounts to deskilling drivers and would reduce the level of training required to qualify for a driver.

RTBU Locomotive division secretary Marc Marotta said this plan would increase the risk of a safety breach on the network. "We object to that because it's creating a lesser-trained person," said Marotta. "If you diminish the training for particular drivers, when they are confronted with something different they make mistakes."

Each segment of the network would have its own dedicated train fleet and pool of drivers with drivers being shifted from Flinders St Station to one of five depots in the suburbs. Only a small group of drivers will be trained to drive on every train line in Melbourne and to operate all three trains in use. Metro Rail has already begun changing rosters in preparation for segmentation of the system.

One train driver told Green Left Weekly the rail infrastructure was the last remaining part of the system that had not been privatised. No company is prepared to buy the whole lot. But dividing it up into five segments means the government can sell or lease each segment separately. The British government segmented its railways before privatisation.

The train driver told GLW the plan to break the system into five segments will destroy the cross-city connectivity of the system. He said that when Melbourne's train system was first privatised, National Express bought the Bayside trams and trains. When the company collapsed and Connex took over (the company before Metro Rail), there were a lot of difficulties integrating the former National Express drivers into the metropolitan rail network because they had been trained to drive only on the National Express lines.

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