Solidarity! Visiting Melbourne transport trade union
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Janine Booth at RTB union, Melbourne

The Rail Tram and Bus (RTB) Union’s Victoria branch has around eight thousand members, three quarters of whom work on the V Line (state-wide railway), Yarra Trams or Metro Trains Melbourne. On 22 August, I visited the union's office.

 

UNITY IS STRENGTH

The RTBU was formed in 1993 by the merging of three separate unions, which had organised drivers, bus workers, and other staff separately. The merger made the workforce much stronger, and now, with 98% of operational transport workers in the union, it is very powerful. On the infrastructure side, there is some overlap with the electricians’ union.

This level of organisation, with a militant approach, has meant that the union has been able to win good wages and conditions for members. Transport jobs are considered very good jobs in Melbourne: a transport controller, for example, is paid around $65 per hour.

The working week is 38 hours worked over five days. This includes paid meal breaks, so is the equivalent of 35.5 hours in the UK. Working hours include early and late shifts, and since the recent introduction of all-night running on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, night shifts too. The night service is staffed by a mixture of full-time workers and part-timers who just do the night work (like I do!).

 

BATTLING THE EMPLOYERS

The employers are all private companies, following the privatisation of public transport by the Liberal (Tory) Jeff Kennett state government in 1993. Kennett’s name is spat with some venom by Melbourne trade unionists, in a similar way to Margaret Thatcher’s in Britain. The Hong Kong transport operator MTR has a large stake, as it does in several private train operating companies in the UK.

RTBU Victoria is currently battling with the employers over the Enterprise Agreement (EA), the equivalent of a pay and conditions claim in the UK (or a contract in the USA). The union had called industrial action for Friday 23 August, but sadly (from my point of view!) called it off after ‘progress in talks’ (a term familiar to UK trade unionists).

Metro Trains management are trying to use the EA negotiations to freeze pay in real terms (capping it at 2%) and to attack some important working conditions, including overtime rates for part-time staff and (what we would call) banked rest days. These measures would, of course, save the employers money, but there is no proposal to redirect that money to improving workers’ pay or conditions - rather, the union anticipates that the savings would ‘just go straight to Hong Kong’ (ie. into MTR’s profits). 

RTBU uses not just strikes but industrial action in the form of opening ticket barriers and refusing to collect fares or issue infringements (penalty charges). The employers are hit in the pocket, passengers get to ride for free, and the union becomes very popular! The union rightly sees this as a very effective tactic alongside strikes, RTBU Secretary Luba Grigotovitch explaining that the intention is to cause pain to the company and not to the passengers.

 

WOMEN WORKERS ORGANISE

RTBU established a Women’s Committee nine years ago. The Committee meets monthly, with all women members invited to attend, and the employer giving them all paid release to do so (yes, really!). 

One of their main issues recently has been maternity uniform, and the union has secured an agreement where a woman worker can order maternity uniform through a neutral third party if she does not want to discuss her pregnancy with her boss.

The union is now battling to get sanitary product dispensers installed in every station and other workplace. Yarra Trams has agreed, but Metro Trains is resisting, claiming that it is too much hassle to negotiate a contract with a new supplier! The union rightly points out that it already has a contract with a company that disposes of used sanitary products, which is very likely to be able to supply the vending machines too. The company could, of course, save itself the hassle and just buy a load of sanitary products and make them available at work free of charge!

RTBU holds a women’s conference every March, celebrates International Working Women’s Day, and gets the Chief Executives of the employers onto a panel to take questions, criticisms and demands from women workers.
 

A LOOK ROUND THE OFFICE

The RTBU Victoria’s office is the second floor of the ACTU (Australian Confederation of Trade Unions) building on Queen Street, other floors of which host the nurses’ union and others.

And yes, just like in RMT-UK’s Unity House, there is a meeting room for the Executive. It’s a little less grandiose, called a meeting room not a boardroom, and with a regular table and chairs rather than an heirloom oval table and a throne. Like ours, it has a photo gallery of past Presidents (or Secretaries in the RTBU’s case), all of whom are white blokes; but again like us, that gallery’s next exhibit will be its very first woman.

My guide was Hannah Scott, a union staff member who runs RTBU Victoria’s women’s committee, social media and membership communications. She was very friendly and informative, and I may bump into her at the footy tomorrow night. I have, of course, come away with merchandise and newsletters, and a fascinating-looking book about the 1969 general strike.