Workers’ power on Melbourne’s trams

Katie Wood talks to former tram conductor Doug Jordan about a long and bitter fight to save more than a thousand jobs in Melbourne’s public transport system.

“The revolution began at dawn – it was the day the workers took over the trams. It was the day the connies put the bosses to flight, commandeered the trams and showed the government how to run the public transport system.”

The Herald’s description of Melbourne’s tram strike wasn’t the usual press hyperbole. On 1 January 1990, depots across the northern suburbs had been taken over; some displayed signs proclaiming “Under new management – workers’ control.” Hundreds of trams blockaded CBD streets for more than a month in early 1990.

Connies were not like the ticket inspectors of today, whose sole job is to police fare evasion and issue hefty fines.

Doug Jordan was a tram conductor and trainer for more than 20 years. During the 1989-90 dispute, he was elected to the dispute committee at the Essendon depot.

When training new connies, he would make it clear that “50 percent of your job was collecting fares, the other 50 percent was providing assistance” – whether this was helping prams aboard or allowing the “more deserving” to ride for free if they didn’t have the money. As a result, conductors had a good reputation with the Melbourne public.

But the Cain Labor government saw in the connies an easy means to fix a fiscal crisis. In the August 1989 budget, the ALP announced it would rid the trams of all conductors.

The Tramways Union began a low-level industrial and political campaign that included no-uniform days, rolling stoppages, mass leafleting of trams, petitions and more.

The trammies also intervened in the state ALP conference (the union was affiliated to the Labor Party). “Before the conference started, we marched to the front and started speaking to the delegates”, says Doug. “They passed a motion opposing the removal of tram conductors … As usual, the Labor government ignored the decisions.”

After months of such actions, the Public Transport Corporation (which ran the trams in the days before privatisation) announced that, starting on New Year’s Day, all trammies would have to sign a statement that they would not participate in industrial action.

 “We told people not to sign … we knew that was coming, so on 1 January we took the trams out; we just took the trams out without permission, without our outfits and we were running the trams for free.”

Government cuts power

A minor accident that day gave the PTC an excuse to announce that it would cut the power to the whole tram system. But again, it misread the determination of the trammies.

Late that night we heard that the government planned to switch the power off. Never been done before. So the union officials went to the Carlton control room trying to convince the people there not to turn the power off. Meanwhile, the better organised depots – Essendon, Brunswick, Preston, South Melbourne – started calling the tram drivers into the workplace and we organised the trams to go into the city …

“The idea was that we would run them as we had [for free] … and prevent the government from turning the power off. We thought the government wouldn’t do it. They did! So the sight of those hundreds of trams in the city, I think, was the biggest indictment of a Labor government. I’m glad we did that, and it was well organised in a number of key depots.”

Hundreds of trams were stranded in the city, tip-to-tip, right along Elizabeth and Bourke Street, for all of January.

Back in the better organised depots, the trammies decided to kick out the managers. I ask Doug how they got rid of them. He replies, “We told them to piss off and not to come back. The depots that kicked out the management were better: they were stronger in support of the dispute. They didn’t have the manager in the depot undermining the confidence of the workers.”

The depots were then used as bases to organise actions and support. “We fed people in the depots. Probably ate better then than I normally do.” From there, workers and supporters went out to look after the trams in the city and collect money and food from the community. The support was fantastic, and right through the dispute, polls showed a large majority in favour of keeping the connies.

One of Doug’s fondest memories is of visiting the waterfront to talk to members of the Waterside Workers Federation and the Seamen’s Union, whose reputation for solidarity was legendary.

At some depots, such as Brunswick, passenger support groups were established. “They kept up the morale of the depot … If you get support networks going, you can last much longer. It builds up the confidence among the people in the dispute, so it’s important.”

Secret negotiations

But the Labor government refused to budge and eventually the union leadership began to waver. The state secretary entered into secret negotiations that led to an agreement to remove conductors in stages in return for greater pay for drivers and some trade-offs for bus drivers.

The agreement was announced to the media on 25 January. Doug distinctly remembers when he found out – he was doing a raffle at the Lincoln Hotel to raise money when the patrons began telling him that a deal had been announced on the news.

A mass meeting to decide on the agreement was held at the Brunswick Town Hall. Doug and other militants first assembled at the Brunswick depot to march to the meeting. A very angry minority was unable to defeat the agreement. Warnings of legal action against the union from the leadership, and weariness from the less organised depots, resulted in the compromise.

“I don’t blame people for going through with the deal in the end. I maintain my anger for the people who did the deal, the agreement, behind the backs of [the workers], and then presented it to the newspaper as if it was a done deal … In my view we were sold out”, Doug says.

The existing connies remained on the trams for the next few years but were slowly eased out. By 1998 all the conductors were to be retrained as ticket inspectors. Doug and a number of other conductors left because, in his words, “I wasn’t prepared to earn a living fining people.”

Despite the bitterness of defeat, the strength and solidarity of the workers during the dispute are still fondly remembered today, in particular in regard to “the commitment of workers and the idea that workers can’t organise themselves – they did; they showed enormous capacity to develop tactics”.

To explain some of the weaknesses of the dispute, Doug points to the fact that there were divisions among some of the other public transport sections because the trammies had not supported them in the past. A motion to strike in support of the trammies went before the railways guards but was defeated on that basis.

But in so doing, “They signed their jobs away, because after the connies went, the guards went. That’s why talking about unity between workers is so important. You have to support other workers, particularly in your own industry – not only for the basic principle of solidarity but because it’s in your own interests too.”

The question of how to fight job losses is relevant once again today as workers’ livelihoods are sacrificed to the pursuit of cheaper labour. “You’ve got to demand the right to work … we’ve lost the idea that everyone has a right to work, that companies don’t have the right to retrench workers. Somehow we’ve got to get back to where people used to fight these things.”

[Doug Jordan is the author of Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics & the Trade Unions, 1945-60, recently published by Resistance Books, and a presenter of community radio 3CR’s City Limits.]