Rail workers still paying for the privatisation fight that never was

Aurizon, formerly Queensland Rail, is closing its Rockhampton workshops and slashing 126 train crew positions. The decision is a major attack on the working class of central Queensland. Aurizon, which is one of the country’s largest rail freight companies, said the cuts were a “result of varying customer demand in the resources sector”. Train crews were given two weeks from the company’s 31 May announcement to accept “voluntary” redundancy or transfer to other depots, or face forced redundancy.

Aurizon wants more flexible crewing arrangements based on contract labour. In total, 181 jobs will be cut from its Queensland workshops. In Mackay and Townsville, 62 jobs will go, on top of hundreds of job losses last year. The closures will be in stages until the workshops are finally phased out in 2018.

The Rockhampton workshops are used to service, maintain and overhaul the railway rolling stock that carts coal, livestock and agricultural produce such as grain and raw sugar from central and far north Queensland. For 150 years, Rockhampton has been known as a rail town. Since 1910, the ALP has been the bedrock of political life, but the 2010 privatisation of Queensland Rail (QR) by the Bligh Labor government sorely tested that loyalty.

Union leaders expressed shock at Aurizon’s announcement. The Rail, Tram and Bus Union called it “a low blow” and “un-Australian”. A 25-year-old fitter, Shaun Jones, employed at the workshops since leaving school, explained his dismay to the ABC: “I’ve got a young family, a young lad and just started a mortgage last year, so thinking my job would be something that I’d have to see me well into my career as a fitter and turner to be pretty much taken away, it was gutting”.

The state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, Rohan Webb, called it a dark day for the Rockhampton community. “Aurizon has chosen to put greedy profiteering above the interests of the Rockhampton community”, he said. He’s right.

Aurizon is shipping record amounts of coal. Its share price has never been higher. Aurizon announced in February that it had increased its underlying earnings by 21 percent, taking its total half-year profit to $488 million. Projections are that it will earn $955 million this year.

The company’s top executives are awarded bonuses and salaries that rival those in the big banks and mining companies. CEO Andrew Harding, former Rio Tinto boss, takes home around $6 million a year.

Justifying the cuts, top Aurizon executive Mike Carter stated: “Aurizon needs to continue to change in line with what our customers need if we are to remain competitive. Historically, most of our train crew have been permanent full-time employees and we have been unable to match fluctuations in weekly and monthly demand”.

There have always been shifts in demand for rail freight. Drought, recession and population movement can cause fluctuations. What doesn’t change, day to day or month to month, is the need for workers to be paid so they can live.

A LEGACY OF ATTACKS ON WORKERS

The privatisation of QR in 2010 laid the groundwork for these attacks. The privatisation was part of a $15 billion suite of asset sell-offs pushed through by the state Labor government, including Queensland Motorways Limited, the port of Brisbane, Forest Plantations Queensland, the Brisbane, Mackay and Cairns airports, and the Abbot Point Coal Terminal.

Coal and freight were sectioned off from QR and renamed Queensland Rail National and later Aurizon. It was a multi-billion dollar gift to big mining interests, which would have needed to spend hundreds of billions to build the rail network from scratch. Aurizon’s executives were mostly former big mining goons, who have filled their pockets with the loot from Queensland’s vast resources.

Since privatisation, Aurizon has waged a vicious anti-union war on the long-held and hard-fought-for conditions of rail workers. But when the question of privatisation was in the balance, the plan faced little resistance from trade union officials, apart from a feeble publicity campaign that focused on lobbying members of parliament.

In 2009, a joint union campaign of industrial action would have created a crisis that had the potential to stop the handover. There was a basis for a genuine fight, one that could have drawn in active community support. Several opinion polls registered community opposition to Bligh’s fire sale at more than 90 percent, one showing that two-thirds of Queenslanders would support industrial action to stop the sell-off.

Within the maintenance workshops, there were frequent calls for the AMWU to organise action. Employing the most powerful weapon in the union movement’s arsenal – halting the transportation of coal across the country – was never countenanced. Instead, the AMWU state secretary, Andrew Dettmar, also president of the Queensland ALP, channelled rank and file resistance to privatisation into meetings between union delegates and sitting members of parliament, who were unmoved by the arguments of rail workers.

Today, AMWU secretary Rohan Webb speaks against this new round of cuts, but when the option was there, he resolutely opposed union members waging a campaign of industrial action to stop privatisation. Instead, he wanted the focus to remain on the union’s media campaign aimed at a Queensland public that was already firmly opposed to privatisations.

FIGHTING BACK

Despite the pressure from union leaders, rank and file maintenance workers did take strike action against privatisation. We couldn’t stop the sell-off but managed to push back some of the worst proposed attacks on wages and conditions for all QR workers, including holding onto an important “no forced redundancies” clause.

After privatisation, a series of voluntary redundancies meant that the most experienced and union-conscious workers, who could see the writing on the wall, left. Supporters also left the ALP in droves, and union leaders were unable to mobilise their membership to campaign for the party in the 2012 state election. The result – 27 percent of the primary vote – was one of the worst in Labor’s history. Anna Bligh has since gone on to take up the role of chief lobbyist for the banking industry, confirming her credentials as a shill for big business.

The workers who were left at Aurizon, demoralised and defeated because of the failed anti-privatisation campaign, were attacked again. In 2015, Aurizon asked the Fair Work Commission to terminate 12 existing enterprise agreements. The commission complied, finding that it was “appropriate” that Aurizon’s workforce be kicked off their enterprise agreements and onto award rates. This landmark ruling set a precedent for many to follow, including Griffin Coal and Murdoch University in Western Australia. Workers at Aurizon lost thousands of dollars while a new agreement was being negotiated. They also lost their “no forced redundancies” protections.

Speaking to workers at the front gates of the Rockhampton workshops after its closure was announced, Webb again committed the union to a familiar strategy: a plan to avoid confrontation at all costs. The union will lobby politicians and argue against the closures in the media. This is a strategy that has had its day. It was tried in 2010 and it failed.

On the back of years of defeat, if Queensland rail workers are to build a fightback, they will be starting from a long way back. But Aurizon’s success in squeezing its workforce can’t be a reason to give up. It only makes it more urgent that the union take a real stand and mobilise workers to defend their livelihoods.

Andrew was a mechanical fitter and AMWU delegate in the brake shop at a QR workshop between 2005 and 2010.