Rail bosses on the attack in Victoria

Across the Victorian passenger rail network, workers are facing a series of attacks on jobs and conditions.

The regional rail operator, V/Line, is trying to vary its enterprise agreement with its workforce, just 12 months before the agreement is due to expire. Earlier this year, the company presented the union that represents rail workers, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, with a list of conditions it wanted cut from the agreement. Asking the union to “take a leap of faith” and trust the company, it encouraged a yes vote in a company-initiated employee ballot to approve the changes.

V/Line had hoped to catch the union asleep at the wheel by first notifying union leaders of its plans over the Christmas break period. The company was also calculating that historical divisions between train drivers and other rail workers would make it easier to push through changes, which predominantly impacted the drivers. As drivers make up a minority of the whole workforce, the company’s strategy to encourage the majority to roll them was to offer a $1,500 payment to each worker if the yes vote prevailed.

Instead, union activists mobilised across the regional rail network to condemn V/Line’s attempt to divide and conquer and called for a no vote. On 6 February, union and cross-division solidarity delivered the company a resounding defeat. More than 90 percent of eligible staff voted in the company’s ballot, and 82 percent voted no to a $1,500 bribe and an attack on conditions for one part of the workforce.

Solidarity will be needed again to save dozens of threatened jobs on the metropolitan rail network in Melbourne. Just months after Metro Trains signed a new contract with the state Labor government, plans have been released to close a number of control rooms along the South Morang and Hurstbridge train lines – immediately threatening the jobs of around 30 station officers. While Metro is being sketchy about the details, it has said that cuts at the Clifton Hill station will be a “pilot” for similar changes at other stations.

Ultimately, the union understands that Metro wants to close local control rooms and shift this work to a super control room somewhere in the CBD. Little is known about what a central control would look like, but it’s clear that it will be staffed by far fewer workers than currently work in control rooms across the network.

Control room operators are the beating heart of the network. Many have years of experience at their stations. These are the workers responsible for monitoring train stations and train movements, providing customer service announcements and responding to emergencies. If you push the emergency button at a suburban train station, it is the local control room staff who respond. Any attempt to cut costs in this area and sack control room operators will be at the expense of passenger safety.

Union delegates and activists have already formed an action committee to fight for these jobs. The campaign started with a well-received public action at the Clifton Hill station on 7 February. One regular commuter stopped to offer these words of encouragement: “The staff here are just excellent, and what [Metro] is trying to do makes me sick”.

Speaking to Red Flag, one control room operator explained why she’s part of the union campaign: “If we all unite together, we can stand strong and have a better chance to fight Metro”. The action committee has decided to organise weekly public actions to highlight the impact of the cuts and to build the pressure on Metro and the public transport minister, Jacinta Allan.

The threat the union is fighting is clear: if Metro can get away with job cuts here, it will be spurred on to make cuts in other sections of the network. RTBU members aren’t fighting simply to save their own skins but to defend workers’ rights to expect full-time permanent jobs. This fight isn’t limited to rail; it’s a battle all workers have an interest in.