Peter Murray is a rank and file delegate from the Australian Railways Union, and as Secretary of the Suburban Train Guards’ Section of that union, has participated in many disputes with the Victorian ALP government and public transport management over job cuts and attacks on wages and conditions. A long time union activist and one of the leaders of the successful 1987 strike to defend the jobs of guards, he comments on the tram workers dispute in the context of wider attacks on public transport workers.
January 9, 1990. The crisis in the public transport (PT) system has finally come to a head. With 250 trams rusting in city streets, tram workers occupying the depots and management cooling its collective heels at head office, the rank and file of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees Association (AT&MOEA or Tramways Union) are pointing the way for other public transport workers under attack (which is most of us). And about bloody time, too!
Since 1983, the Cain Government has had PT workers under the hammer, destroying thousands of jobs and ruining the lives of the workers who once occupied them. Staff morale in all areas is at rock bottom, and even greater attacks are planned this year. Cain and his would-be successor, Transport Minister Kennan are targeting workers in the following areas:
• Tram Conductors
• Station Staff
• Shunters, both Met and V/line
• Guard/Second Persons
• Country-based Train Drivers
• Trade and Catering Staff
• Clerical and Administrative Staff
• Car Cleaners
• General Cleaners
• Infrastructure Maintenance Workers
• Signalling Staff
This is part of a plan to shed 4,000 PT jobs over the next two years, and 2,100 of these are planned to be axed by June 30 this year! Much of this has been known for some time, but, as in past years, not much more than a peep has been heard from the so-called left leaderships of PT unions, while the ‘company union’ scabs at the head of other unions have done everything in their power to derail, sellout and prevent any sort of fight against government attacks. The sole partial exception is the new, ‘progressive’ leadership of the Tramways Union.
The Tram Workers’ Dispute
The tram dispute was sparked by the government’s plan to remove the conductors from trams. Eleven hundred jobs are at stake. Five months after the attack on connies was announced, the leadership of the union allowed itself to be caught on the back foot. Only after the lockout were depot strike committees and support committees organised. This is because the leadership spent its time in electoral battles and a campaign of ducking and weaving, now on now off action, which was demoralising the membership. It would have been far better to have held off the political pressure campaign while vital shop floor organisation was implemented. The leadership’s tactics weakened the union’s position.
Nevertheless, the resolve of the tram workers and their solid backing of the industrial action has partially overcome this. The tactic of occupying the depots is an excellent one as it provides people with support and encouragement, provides a pool of workers for picket and other duties, gives the dispute a public presence and provides a forum for grass roots organisation and control which the standard stay-at-home strike does not. This is a tactic which should be copied by other workers as a matter of urgency.
It appears that government spies completely misread the attitude of the membership, translating the rank-and-file dissatisfaction with the pressure campaign as a reluctance to fight the main battle. So management’s tactic of attempting to get workers to sign what was effectively a no-strike contract on the first of January backfired completely, particularly when the locked-out workers took over the tram system and ran it, more-or-less successfully on that day. Another blow was the removal of trams from four major depots to central Melbourne to counter Kennan’s decision to shut off overhead power. Now they stand in the CBD as a monument to the workers’ defiance.
But the buses were sent back on the road, partly because of some management disruption tactics, ably assisted by past Secretary Jim Harper, whose attempts to sell the connies’ jobs over the past year have developed into outright scabbing. This should not have been allowed to happen, and the leadership must take the blame. Although Elwood bus depot had voted to return to work, they were convinced by the new Secretary, Lou Di Gregorio, to reverse that decision and walk off again. But at a North Fitzroy meeting, members were not informed that this was the case and voted to go back. Doncaster was more of a problem, given Harper’s tactics there, but there was a strong picket line which was being honoured, and it is clear that some direction from the leadership could have headed off the scab elements.
Apparently the union leadership, in tandem with Trades Hall Council bureaucrats, decided to return to the old political pressure tactics as far as possible. They are running the line that the tram workers are locked out, which is true, but the maintenance and bus workers were on strike, a situation which gave the lie to union publicity. Solution – call off the striking workers. This is a criminal concession to the ALP. Every AT&MOEA member should be on the grass, and the trammies should not be isolated within the union!
ARU Leaders Sabotage Action
The tram drivers and conductors are showing the way, and all PT workers are under attack, yet where are the rail workers? As usual, the bought-off ALP leadership of the Australian Railways Union (ARU) is preventing industrial action as hard as it can. State Secretary Joe Sibberas, a member of the ALP state Administrative Committee and a supporter of Kennan’s bid for the state Premier’s job has done positively everything to head off struggle in the rail system. He’s aided in this by other ALP hacks and State President George Zangalis, member of the soon to be extinct Communist Party (CP). George is a de facto ALP member, and is the residue of the old CP leadership of the ARU. These people have only one role in the union – to sell out the rank and file in the interests of the ALP. One of the first occupations by ARU members should be of their union office to kick out these treacherous bureaucrats!
What Sibberas and Co are also doing is punishing the Tramways Union for (1) disaffiliating from the ALP and (2) standing a candidate against the ALP in the Thomastown state by-election. This is despite the fact that almost every section of the ARU is of the opinion that disaffiliation would be a smart move, if only to save the $21,000 of members’ money being paid to a government which is out to crush them. The question is very likely to be debated at the next ARU State Council and is likely to succeed. Necessarily there is the question of where does a union go when it leaves the ALP, and this will have to be debated fully in the union before a decision is made.
As an aside, the tactic of standing against the ALP in Thomastown is fine, provided that one stands on a programme which puts the blame where it lies, not on an individual minister, but on the capitalist system, the crisis of which is to blame for the current destruction of jobs and living standards. The answer is a genuine socialist government made up of working people, not another ‘left’ in the bosses’ Parliament. If Tramways Union President Monica Harte is standing on an anti-capitalist platform she should have workers’ critical support. If not, then workers should not give her their vote.
Rail Workers Must Join the Dispute
This dispute must be widened, now, if it is to succeed. ARU members must ignore the union’s Executive Officers’ sellout policy and take industrial action, both in support of the workers and for their own jobs and conditions. This government is out to get all of us and if we don’t hang together, we’ll be hung separately.
Suburban Guards in particular should realise that the roving conductor is a direct threat to their jobs, and sooner rather than later. In 1991 at the latest the jobs will be on the line again when the staffing agreement comes up for review. This dispute is key for the future of Guards. Train controllers are already on the hit list and should already have shut down metropolitan train control. The same is true of all those workers whose jobs appear on the list above. Strike now to defend public transport jobs!
Train Drivers must also realise that their leadership, tied closely to the ALP’s right wing, is plotting a course which will close every country loco depot except Geelong. There is strong evidence that award restructuring negotiations have take place which involve such attacks on conditions as split shifts. Driver only operation is still on the private agenda of some union misleaders, despite the opposition of most suburban drivers.
Neither is the so-called ‘socialist’ Secretary Frank Hussey to be trusted. Hussey signed a letter last year which committed the drivers’ union to an an all-out war with the ARU and other industry unions. Drivers’ union bosses have threatened to take over the work of shunters, signallers, train examiners and even fitters and cleaners. The ARU cannot abide this , and will be forced to retaliate, dividing the ranks of PT workers when they desperately need to be united. We need a single united union in this industry! A victory in the current dispute will put the Government in a weaker position to implement its other plans. Train Drivers must also take action to win the current dispute. We all work for the same boss now, and that boss wants a pound of flesh from all of us! Unfortunately Drivers’ union leaders are taking what is a potentially militant union with a proud history of struggle more and more down the track of tame-cat company unionism.
Speaking of company unions, the despicable role of the Municipal Officers Association (MOA), a union close to Prime Minister Hawke, and the Australian Transport Officers’ Federation (ATOF), which is a complete scab outfit, should make every decent worker seethe. ATOF is in the middle of amalgamation discussions with the MOA, and follows its lead totally. The MOA wants more members to extend its control of public transport in the interests of the ALP right wing. So they have scabbed on the trammies and the station staff under attack. Individually and collectively the leadership of both so-called unions must suffer from hideous diseases contracted while licking the bosses’ boots. If there exist within these outfits any decent workers they should resist the scabbing and join the tram and rail workers in dispute. It is certain that the unions concerned would welcome and defend any Traffic Inspector, Stationmaster or clerical worker who joined them.
Trammies Must Spread the Strike
A number of urgent tasks face tram drivers and conductors. Firstly, bus and maintenance workers must be persuaded to rejoin the action. If this fails then bus depots and workshops must be picketed to shut them down. Appeals should be made to railworkers to ignore the sabotage from their various officials and to take action to shut down the rail system. Links should be made with rank and file delegates in rail and joint action planned. A total shutdown of public transport in Victoria would severely damage the ALP government and place it under strong pressure to settle. Tram workers are in a strong position – they must take the dispute further in order to win.