Over the past two weeks the Victorian Labor government has ramped up its hostile rhetoric towards rail and tram workers fighting to defend their rights.
This culminated in joint legal action taken in the Fair Work Commission with rail boss Metro Trains against the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) in a bid to stop railway workers from taking strike action on September 4.
It failed to stop the strike going ahead.
Rail operations workers went on strike for four hours on September 4. Train drivers also struck for one hour between 3am-4am on September 3. These were the first Victorian railway strikes in 18 years.
On August 27, tram workers also struck for four hours. Tram workers are facing similar attacks from their employer, Yarra Trams.
The RTBU tried to organise its industrial action to minimise the impact on the public. However, Metro Trains deliberately thwarted these plans.
When the RTBU cancelled its planned rail and tram strike on August 21, Metro cancelled dozens of train services in an effort to create public anger at the union. It also made unnecessary cancellations to train services on the day of the four-hour strike.
On September 4, the Herald Sun ramped up its anti-worker rhetoric by printing deliberate misinformation from Metro Trains. It claimed that the average train driver is paid $140,000 to drive 124 km in 3.58 hours.
Train drivers who do an average amount of overtime earn around $92,000. One driver explained to Green Left Weekly that even if a driver worked the maximum overtime possible they would not be able to earn $140,000. This driver also said that on the average shift, train drivers drive between 150 and 200 km a day.
The RTBU pointed out that train drivers are only a tiny proportion of the rail workforce. Many rail operations staff such as ticket inspectors and station staff are poorly paid.
RTBU secretary Luba Grigorovitch told a rally of hundreds of rail workers that Metro Trains is trying to undermine the hard won conditions of rail workers by introducing 12-hour shifts. These would have big negative impacts on both quality of life and health and safety on the job.
She reiterated that this dispute is “not about the money. It's about the conditions, conditions like the length of the working day, overtime and penalty rates and decent rostering arrangements and disciplinary measures that are fair.
“Metro is a wealthy multinational company,” she said. “It is big enough and rich enough to pay decent wages and conditions. It has made $235 million in profit since it took over the franchise in Melbourne. Metro profits have gone up 45% in the last three years."
Grigorovitch also criticised the government: “At every step of the way, this government has backed Metro. They backed them in their aggressive legal tactics and tried to terminate our protected industrial action.
RTBU delegate Joe Maisano told the rally “the dispute is about rights … the right to decent hours, the right to a safe working environment, the right to work in a public transport system that we can be proud of.
“This is about our rights, our democratic right to take protected strike action that 98% of the membership voted for. We have to be listened to. We are not about to give these conditions away for a pay rise.”
Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union secretary John Setka told the rally that 98% of RTBU members voting to take industrial action was “awesome”.
He said: “One thing [Metro has] to remember is that you're not slaves. You've got the right to withdraw your labour whenever you like.”
Setka slammed the state government for attacking the RTBU.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council executive unanimously passed a motion of support for the RTBU campaign and called on the government to stop trying to block public transport workers from exercising their right to strike.
One train driver told Green Left Weekly that Metro is trying to enforce the worst attack on working conditions in decades. They want total flexibility to roster workers whenever it suits them. There could be a 3am start one day, followed by a 1pm start, then a 1am start. Metro wants to remove any limit on the length of shifts and to stop paying workers for public holidays if they aren't rostered to work.
The issue of rosters is especially important given the government and public transport companies' plans to introduce 24-hour public transport on Fridays and Saturdays.
Train drivers will strike on September 5 for four hours between 2am and 6am and tram workers will strike on September 10 for four hours.
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