On 19 May the Rail, Tram and Bus Union lost a stalwart and comrade, Marty McGrath.
Marty started working in the railways in 1991 as a shunter and continued in the industry working on various projects in various roles until illness forced him into retirement in 2015.
He held a number of positions in the union including delegate, divisional representative, divisional secretary/organiser, union trainer and both branch and national councillor.
I met Marty when I was hired by Melbourne Metro in 2011. He was my delegate when I first got to Flinders Street Station. He always backed us when we wanted to have a fight – even if it was controversial. When I started, I had the privilege of walking straight into a safety dispute. When the company docked the pay of some of our members for taking illegal industrial action, Marty bought a bottle of whisky and raffled it to cover the lost wages.
He ran the delegates training that I was part of and devoted a considerable section of the course to talking about the history of rebel women in the union movement. He told stories about migrant workers and generally explained why unionists had to oppose all forms of oppression. He could bring to life stories of “the old days”, which inspired you to devote yourself to the rebuilding of a militant rank and file.
One of my favourite stories was from his time as a shunter. The workers discovered that the bosses had much nicer toilet paper than them. “Are our arseholes not worth as much?”, they asked their delegate. After some failed negotiations, Marty introduced the union members to some Irish history, and the workers conducted their own version of a dirty protest – from memory, in the bosses’ luxurious bathrooms. They got their toilet paper. “The only dignity we have at work, is the dignity we fight for”, he said.
Marty got it. He knew that power didn’t lie in the Labor Party, the halls of parliament or even the union offices. It’s us that mattered, rank and file workers. We never felt like an imposition or that we were wasting his time. Rank and file power wasn’t rhetoric – it was real. All of us trained by him have the great privilege of carrying some of that legacy.
Our movement has too few fighters like Marty.