Unity is strength: the Suburban Guards’ Strike of 1987

Working class history

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An edited version of this article appeared in the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s (RTBU) magazine, Express. Author, Peter Murray, a key leader of the strike, was the Secretary of the Guard’s section of the Australian Railways Union. Like all strikes at the time, this industrial action was not “protected.” Workers exercised their power by standing together and walking off the job.

As a union, the RTBU recently commemorated the Great Strike of 1917, where rail and tram unionists revolted against management attempts to make their work harder.

And 67 years ago, in 1950, drivers and guards led a huge campaign to enforce overtime limits in a long stopwork. The issue then was unpaid overtime — which we now call wage theft.

These were the two longest railway strikes of the twentieth century. There was a third, and it happened 30 years ago. It was about a job role which is now long gone: the Suburban Guards’ Strike of 1987.

Our “friends” in the management of what is now Public Transport Victoria (PTV) had long harboured a grudge against the Guards Section of the Australian Railways Union. The guards were a diverse group of men from working class backgrounds, including migrants from Italy, India, Sri Lanka and a host of other countries. They had a proud history of standing up for themselves, and for each other.

So, when, in 1987, it was proposed to get rid of this group of workers, who were the people in charge of the safeworking of suburban trains, the stiff necks of the guards stood proud. (And, I might say, that by then, the twentieth century had dawned upon railway management — there were now five women!)

Thirty-seven years after the end of the 1950 strike — to the day, although we didn’t know it then — the Suburban Guards Section voted (almost unanimously) to strike in the lead-up to Christmas, bringing city retail almost to a halt. We walked off on 8 December and did not return until Sunday, 21 December. During this period of almost two weeks, not a single metropolitan train ran.

Why? Well here’s the thing: it was about more than the mortgage, or the trip overseas. The staunchest of the strikers were the older men. And they made their case passionately in the union meetings: “It’s not my job; I’m just holding it for the next person who comes along. It might be my child or it might be somebody else’s kid, but we have to keep these jobs for the young people.” By standing together and withdrawing our labour, we won that dispute. We all kept our jobs.

It was five year later when the Kennett union-busting juggernaut hit our union, and we Guards were “abolished.” In this instance, it only took a “trivial” 24-hour strike, shutting down the trains for the government, to negotiate jobs for every worker who wanted to stay and decent redundancy deals for those who wanted to leave. They were afraid of our stiff necks; they were afraid of the power of unionists.

So now, if you are an authorised officer or a train driver, or work on a station or in train control and you find that one of your workmates was a suburban guard, then buy them a cup of whatever and ask them about their experience of 1987.

They are what a unionist looks like.

But then every time you stand up against workplace bullying, unfair management practices and social injustice in general, you are entitled to look in the mirror and say this is what a unionist looks like!

The jobs we defend are not ours: we must hand them on. 1987 is a bloody long time ago. But tomorrow beckons. Here’s to a future based on solidarity!

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