As Melbourne swelters through a record-breakingly hot summer, rail workers are turning up the heat on management.
For more than 10 years, railway workers employed by Metro Trains have been asking for a small concession from management to ease the strain of heat stress: shorts to be included in the uniform. The constant refrain from managers is “Oh yes, yes, shorts … maybe next summer … oh yes we agree with you”. But nothing ever changes.
Of course, these managers work in air-conditioned offices while workers stand out in the heat.
Every year, as the hot weather hits, workers and managers begin to argue over when exactly workers should be allowed to take off their ties. Because even though it’s incredibly outdated – most people in offices haven’t worn ties for many years – Metro Trains customer service staff who work outdoors are expected to wear an old-fashioned corporate uniform including business shirts, slacks, a tie and optional blazer.
This summer has been a particularly brutal one. In built-up areas, temperatures can soar much higher than the state average. So for staff working outdoors or at places like Flinders Street station, which is essentially a giant tin shed with a series of glass panels that create a greenhouse effect, working conditions become increasingly painful and uncomfortable.
After negotiations with the union this summer, Metro agreed to set up a committee to review the uniform and be part of a consultative process to develop a new one. Management assured workers they were in favour of including shorts, but that it would be impossible to introduce them before the end of this summer.
When this information was conveyed to the workers, they erupted in anger. One young and relatively new worker declared, “I’m not satisfied waiting until next summer. It’s only mid-January and we will have so much stinking hot weather this year … I have spoken with a few people today about how I have been feeling so uncomfortable and my skin is so red and sore due to these stupid woollen pants … I want results! and I want you guys to stand together with me. I’m also looking to hear from each and every one of you who care about those issues, or care about the physical comfort and well-being of your colleagues, to actually say something or do something with me”.
Worker after worker jumped in to back these sentiments and make known their preparedness to take action. The suggestion of starting a petition was enthusiastically agreed upon.
In the following days, a team of workers collected signatures under an open letter to the Metro CEO, demanding the immediate introduction of shorts.
With the support of the union secretary, the letter was sent and, within a few days, Metro announced that shorts will be available for all staff as of the next Monday.
Union members at Flinders Street were ecstatic. While many of the station staff have been involved in disputes and battles before, this particular fight was initiated and led by new activists.
Delegates and experienced militants should encourage this energetic approach and help further develop new workplace activists and leaders so that this victory can be built on.