Street fight: 20 years on, tramway workers’ organising has lessons for rank-and-file unionists

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It’s a common concern of older unionists – young workers joining unions have no concept of industrial disputes. Most have never even been affected by a strike. Why is this? It goes back to 1983, when the unions did a deal with the Hawke Labor government. The “Prices and Incomes Accord” began an era of demobilisation of the rank-and-file membership of nearly every union. Workplace delegates were sidelined and disagreements between employers and workers settled in boardrooms and courtrooms.

There have been exceptions, like the Construction and Maritime unions. In many workplaces, the pitch to new arrivals to join the union is more likely to be cheap whitegoods through the Union Shopper scheme than an appeal to solidarity and strength in numbers. It wasn’t always that way. Twenty years ago this summer, a struggle by rank-and-file workers showed how it’s done.

It’s August 1989. The Labor government announced that, within weeks, it would begin sacking up to 500 tram conductors. They were to be replaced by tickets purchased “off system” and a flimsy aluminium door for tram drivers. Incensed, tram and rail workers began a fight to save the jobs. Rail unions joined in the dispute with solidarity strikes and pickets, shutting down the entire government transport sector on several days.

By mid December, the government had imposed individual contracts on tram workers, which they refused to sign. As more and more workers were stood down without pay, the trammies retaliated by occupying their depots and running the trams without management. That act of workers’ control terrified the government. By late afternoon on New Year’s Day, 1990 the word went out that the government was to cut the tram power supply. That night hundreds of trams were driven into the streets of central Melbourne. For the whole of the next month, the depots were under worker control, supported by the community. Local businesses helped out by providing hot meals. And hundreds of trams stood idle in full public view.

I’d like to say that the dispute was successful, but the conductors were sold out after a series of secret meetings between the union’s federal officials, the State Secretary and the government. When the news of the looming betrayal leaked out, a militant core of workers took over the running of the dispute and, in a defiant attempt to keep the fight going, it was decided to blockade the railway yards on Wednesday, 31 January 1990. I was there to ensure the safety of the picketers. After a briefing, tram workers jogged through the early morning darkness and stood in front of the trains waiting to enter service. They stayed there all day. It was to be the last action in the dispute. Two days later, the battle was lost in the bosses’ court and in a union meeting stacked with non-striking bus drivers.

The removal of conductors from Melbourne’s trams was a deeply unpopular move, and support for the trammies who organised one of the longest strikes in public service history never wavered among most commuters. Twenty years on, the loss of ticket revenue is still more than double what it would cost to put a second person back on every tram. The service is less safe, less accessible and it’s dehumanising.

There is an important lesson from the defeat – that for any struggle to be successful, it must be under membership control. Timid officials who would not split from their political allies in government brought about the defeat of the trammies in 1990. The fight for unionists today is to democratise our organisations, making officials and delegates accountable and breaking the stranglehold of ALP politics over the union movement as a whole. It’s time to reinvigorate unions as weapons of the class struggle, not pawns in factional brawls or springboards for a safe seat in Parliament.

The tram workers should have won – they had the right strategy and good rank-and-file leadership. As unionists, they were not beaten, even though many were to leave the industry. They stood together, they controlled the workplace and they organised and inspired mass community support. Even as they returned to work empty-handed, they could look the boss in the eye. They had learned – and their fight teaches us – the truth of an old union motto: if you don’t fight – you lose!

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