In September, the Victorian Labor government signed a seven-year contract extension with Melbourne’s metropolitan rail operator, Metro Trains. Hidden in the contract – which was kept secret from rail workers and our union – was a Public Transport Victoria proposal to cut local control desk operations and centralise these functions in a CBD-based super-control room.
Control room staff in the Clifton Hill group (South Morang and Hurstbridge lines) were told that their stations would be a pilot for the changes. The news was that up to 30 permanent full time jobs would be wiped from across the Cilfton Hill, Reservoir, Eltham and Heidelberg stations. If rolled out across the network, our union – the Rail, Tram and Bus Union – estimated that as many as 400 jobs would be lost.
In a reflection of the utter disregard Metro has for its workers, the union was not consulted about changes. Instead, the major restructure was announced as a fait accompli.
The RTBU successfully argued at the Fair Work Commission that the company was required to consult with the union before implementing a change of this nature. This legal reprieve, while not stopping the plan, bought activists time to organise.
An action committee was quickly formed and a campaign to save the jobs set in motion. Delegates and members involved in the committee took the position that there was nothing to negotiate about. The campaign aim was to save every job at every station.
Led by delegates in the Clifton Hill area, union members sprang into action, holding weekly morning protests outside the stations threatened with cuts. The action committee met regularly to discuss tactics and spread information about the company’s plans at union meetings across the rail network. Metro and the government quickly found themselves in an uncomfortable position.
Our lively and persistent campaign, the threat of greater levels of industrial unrest and a proposal to protest the government outside Parliament House resulted in a backdown. On 1 March, public transport minister Jacinta Allan contacted the union to say that the changes were no longer proceeding. A senior Metro manager sent a letter with a similar message but threatened to resume discussions in 12 months.
Unionised station staff have every reason to feel proud about this victory. We should take the momentum and lessons of our win into the next round of enterprise agreement negotiations, which begin next year.