Why unions should oppose Melbourne's East West Link
Three quarters of Victorians believe improvements in public transport are more important than the construction of the East West Link.
Although its stated aim is to ease congestion, in particular on one of Melbourne’s most congested roads, a government report revealed late last year that it would actually attract more cars and trucks and consequently increase traffic.
The East West Link has its fans, especially powerful ones. They include the RACV and business group the Victorian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as the Australian Workers Union and the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union.
But other unions are opposed to the project. Last month the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) passed the following motion. “That Victorian Division of the NTEU supports investment in public transport, in particular rail to Doncaster to solve traffic congestion on Hoddle Street and the Eastern Freeway and on many local roads leading to the Eastern Freeway, rather than building the East West Link which will exacerbate traffic problems.
“[The NTEU] will begin to educate all members about the issue [and] will begin to discuss and debate the issue with other unions through the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC).”
Other unions such as the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) have also supported the campaign against the East West Link while the VTHC has not taken a position on the controversial project.
Assistant secretary of the Victorian branch of the ETU Wes Hayes, sent the following message to the community rally against the East West Link June 28. “The ETU has always been supportive of any employment opportunities that add real value to the society we live in. In saying this, as a union we believe jobs that are created should work in conjunction with, not against the community.”
State secretary of the RTBU Luba Grigorovitch told Green Left Weekly, “RTBU Victoria does not support the proposed East West Link. The link, which has been drafted with little public transparency by the Denis Napthine government, will do little to ease traffic on Victoria's roads, cost commuters more and is likely to increase congestion in the inner city.
“The evidence has consistently shown that building new rail infrastructure instead would go much further in removing traffic from our roads, create more jobs and be more environmentally sustainable. The RTBU therefore calls on the state government to invest in a new rail project such as the Doncaster Rail Link and a proper Melbourne Metro, rather than the East West Link .”
“Long term jobs in public transport out number toll roads by a ratio of at least three to one. The amount of patronage in public transport compared to toll roads is behind comparison in favour of rail or tram links. Why would a government invest in a toll road without a business plan when the figures in favour of public transport investment are so clear?
“As a trade union we support jobs that are sustainable to the environment, secure for our members and beneficial for the community. On this basis the only answer that can be given for this project is that rail links are an investment for the future for all people and toll roads benefit the shareholders of those companies.”
The communities directly impacted by the construction of the project have run a tireless campaign against it, organising pickets of the test drilling sites, rallies, meetings and demonstrations. A rally in June against the project attracted about 3000 people.
This raises the question; should unions support or oppose the East West Link?
LONG TERM JOBS
While some unionists see jobs in this project and big dollars are being offered to buy the unions’ compliance, they are short term. There are more jobs and certainly more ongoing jobs in rail.
Expanding Victoria’s rail system means train stations and electricity sub-stations have to be built, overhead electrical wiring and earthwork has to be undertaken, as well as the ongoing jobs including maintenance jobs, station staff and drivers. Trains, of course have to be serviced and the more trains and train lines, the more jobs that are created.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, RBTU and ETU have been campaigning for years for more of the rolling stock and the components to be built in Victoria because that would create hundreds of jobs.
Research has also found that the creation of 100 direct rail jobs supports 140 indirect and induced jobs whereas 100 direct car manufacturing jobs create only 48 indirect and induced job. The same study found that investing in public transport in the US produced twice as many jobs per dollar as investing in roads and that the public transport sector provides a wide range of jobs from drivers, ticket agents and semi-skilled and skilled manufacturing jobs to managerial and technical engineering jobs.
Officials from the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union argue that campaigning against the East West Link is not an issue for them because it is not directly related to their work and that the Victorian Trades Hall should deal with it.
UNION MEMBERS ARE COMMUNITY MEMBERS
While the traditional role of trade unions is to defend and extend conditions of work and improve pay, there is a long history of unions taking action over non-industrial issues, such as supporting draft resisters, opposing wars, boycotting the apartheid states of South Africa and Israel, and the green bans, which saved Sydney from overdevelopment in the 1970s.
When 74% of Victorians want investment in public transport rather than in a toll road, that means that many trade union members must feel the same. Obviously trade union members are part of the community and share the same interests and concerns. It is very divisive and ultimately against the best interests of workers to compartmentalise their lives as if their concerns as workers are different to their concerns as community members.
What better organisations are there than trade unions to protect communities, especially when major political parties such as the Labor Party have aligned themselves with big business?
The East West Link will devastate several Victorian communities. Aside from the 105 homes and 34 commercial properties acquired for the project, Melbourne’s largest inner-city park will lose 5000 trees and 1.36 hectares to a six-lane freeway, which will be built only two and a half metres from windows of 3500 public housing tenants. Some areas of Melbourne’s inner north will be turned into a construction zone for years.
This will cause issues with dust, air quality, noise and vibration impacts. Vibration impacts are also a serious concern for some animals in the Melbourne Zoo, which lays only metres away from the proposed construction site.
This project is being proposed because it will be helpful to the big corporations that will construct the toll road and to the trucking companies that want easier access to the Port of Melbourne.
It will cost the taxpayers billions of dollars, in fact, it has been predicted that it will cripple the state’s budget for years and most likely impact state spending on health and education. That is clearly a matter of concern for all workers.
By taking an active role in community matters, unions would be forging invaluable links with the community. At a time when the federal government is out to seriously weaken if not completely destroy unions, gaining allies is urgent and very necessary.
When unionists from senior officers to rank-and-file members stand side by side with community members against government and big business attacks, the community learns that trade unionists are their allies and smear campaigns against them will convince less people.
A win on any issue will give workers and community activists the skills and confidence to fight other attacks. Working class bodies, such as trade unions should defend their communities because it will strengthen the whole working class.