Rail freight dispute threatens Vic grain harvest

Pacific National (PN), Australia’s largest rail freight company, continues its assault on the wages and conditions of train drivers in its Victorian Rural and Bulk division, which hauls grain, mineral sands and other primary commodities. 

The company and the union representing locomotive drivers, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, have been bargaining for more than a year and are now entrenched in dispute. According to the minutes of negotiation meetings dating back to February, PN sought to have the union removed as a party from any future agreement. The company also wants drivers to accept a pay cut of up to $19,000 a year and the loss of existing travel entitlements. Under PN’s proposal, drivers would be expected to sign on to work at multiple locations, up to 120 km apart, without reimbursement for their travel. It also wants to remove conversion rights for casual workers. 

Pacific National has also engaged a Western Australian-based labour hire agency, Railtrain, to provide what it’s calling “a contingent” labour force on cut-price wages. The RTBU is in negotiations with Railtrain and is seeking to represent labour hire workers. The union is pushing for the alignment of the labour hire base rates of pay with the industry standard and greater provision for permanency. Railtrain is ignoring the union. 

PN locomotive drivers have initiated various work stoppages and go-slows since April. Over the course of the dispute, more than 30 trains have been cancelled and more than 60 have not completed their journeys on time. In early May, PN responded to workers’ industrial action by announcing a seven-day lockout. 

Around 3 million tonnes of grain are moved by PN in Victoria each year. As it is now missing freight loads, the Victorian  Farmers’ Federation says that grain growers are struggling to get the product of a bumper crop to buyers. Farmers are instead contracting trucking companies to haul their grain to market, but trucks alone will not be enough to move all the state’s grain on time. 

The urgency surrounding the farmers’ push to get grain to market gives the locomotive drivers a significant advantage in the dispute. Even though Pacific National is one of the most combative companies in Australia, the industrial strength of the locomotive drivers could yet bring it to heel.