Rail workers step in to save station cleaners’ jobs

Two sacked cleaners at Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station have won their jobs back after joining with other rail workers to fight their boss. Ada and Lilly [not their real names] were sacked by cleaning contractor ISS, after they had refused to shift from permanent to casual positions. 

In the past, workers like Ada and Lilly would have been employed directly by the government or rail operator. These days, the outsourcing of station cleaning is just part of the maze of contracting and subcontracting that keeps Melbourne’s train network running. 

Like many industries, the railways are full of divisions. Workers in different grades and job roles often find themselves pitted against each other – whether it’s train drivers and signallers, workers in the local control rooms and those in the central control room or cleaners versus customer service staff. Unfortunately, outsourcing and subcontracting can exacerbate these divisions. 

At Flinders Street there have been instances when rail workers – frustrated with their own conditions – have tried to blame cleaning staff for customer complaints about the station, or the condition of our own amenities. Rank and file leaders in the Rail, Tram and Bus Union have consistently argued against these tendencies and that RTBU members must stand in solidarity with cleaners while blaming the bosses’ outsourcing, understaffing and under-resourcing for any problems with station standards. Sadly, earlier this year, a small group of rail workers called for cleaners to be banned from the staff meal rooms. The majority of members were very clear that we would not support this.

Given the sometimes delicate relationship between rail workers and cleaners, it was a breath of fresh air to come into work one Friday afternoon and be rushed by multiple RTBU members insisting that I find Ada. When I found Ada, she was in the middle of panicked conversation with a sympathetic rail worker.

Ada’s first language isn’t English, and she had been given a letter that she didn’t understand. She recognised it immediately as a bad sign. The letter summoned her to a meeting the next day to discuss her hours. Ada thought that the company would try to make her job casual. She was right. 

Ada went to the meeting alone. There, her managers tried to force her to sign an agreement giving up her permanent full time position and accepting a casual role. Even though her union, United Voice, wasn’t with her in this meeting, Ada had the courage to refuse to sign. When her employer continued to push, she agreed to take the paperwork home and return with an answer the next day. When she came into work the day after the meeting, she was handed a termination letter. The same thing happened to two other cleaners. 

Immediately, RTBU members rallied around the workers. While we helped Ada and her workmates explain the urgency of the situation to United Voice, we also got straight into the job of helping them write statements about their experience. We looked up their award rights and reviewed the ISS contract to see if we could find any points they could use to defend themselves. The RTBU also applied pressure, calling on the rail operators to step in. 

After a few days of frantic activity from the cleaners and RTBU activists, a United Voice organiser visited the station and spoke with the workers. The union then launched a Fair Work case against the dismissals and, to date, has secured the jobs of two of the sacked workers. 

The campaign to save these jobs shows the importance of re-establishing traditions of rank and file workplace activism in our unions. Because we have done this at Flinders Street Station, Ada and her workmates knew that a collective response was possible when they were unfairly sacked. Had it not been for the quick response of other rail workers, their story would likely have been just another demoralising tale about job insecurity and union impotence. Instead, Ada is back at work, and everyone who was involved walks a little taller.