In a move described as “a blatant and obvious attack on the union movement” by the rail union, Metro Trains Sydney in March sacked a union delegate on its new driverless train project. The delegate had been in the process of petitioning for union recognition and a better agreement.
The Metro Trains project, due to begin operation this year, has been a centrepiece of the Liberal state government’s agenda of privatising public transport. The government has already sold off the operation of parts of Sydney’s bus and ferry transport network, transport minister Andrew Constance commenting in 2017 that “in 10 to 15 years’ time, government will not be in the provision of transport services”.
Running trains for profit will increase the cost of transport for commuters, and is a threat to the safety of workers and passengers as profits are put ahead of the safe operation of trains. The sacking of the Metro delegate shows that privatisation of public transport is just as much about trying to break the power of unions in the rail industry, which has one of the highest union densities in the state.
From the start, Metro Trains Sydney has been determined to stop the rail union from organising on the new project and has savagely cut conditions that have been hard fought for in the rail industry. Management have been able to use a greenfields agreement to pay their workers significantly less than workers doing equivalent duties at Sydney Trains. The greenfields agreement has also allowed them to register Professionals Australia as the union representing all Metro staff, a move intended to sideline the more militant Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
Metro employees have told Red Flag that when they were initially interviewed, they were assured that they would receive penalty rates, as well as penalties for night shifts. But once they were employed, none of these entitlements were in their contracts.
Shift work in the rail industry takes a tremendous toll on those who work it. Studies show that people who regularly work night shifts live up to 10 years less than the average worker, and missing social and family events is common. The Metro contract had no provisions for shift-working penalties; instead it has a total fixed remuneration rate of pay. This means that someone working a 9 to 5 roster would be paid the same as someone working the graveyard shift all year. Workers have also been told that they will not receive overtime rates, and instead may take time in lieu at an unspecified date. The pay at Metro Sydney is also significantly lower than for workers conducting similar duties at Sydney Trains.
Conditions to limit fatigue are likewise woefully inadequate. In a safety-critical industry like the railways, fatigue can easily lead to serious injury and death. Fatigue was a key contribution to the Waterfall train derailment in 2003, in which seven people lost their lives. Frequency of shifts and adequate time off between shifts are important safety conditions, but are lacking in the Metro Trains agreement.
While the majority of staff at Metro have joined the rail union, management has refused to recognise the RTBU. It was while the delegate was collecting signatures to have the union officially recognised so that the workers could fight for a fair agreement that Metro sacked him, using the fact that he was still on probation to avoid any repercussions.
A protest was held immediately after the sacking, and the union is continuing to pursue the case.
Metro’s actions are an attack on the rights of workers to organise to fight for better wages and conditions everywhere. The privatisation of public transport is a threat to the hard fought for working conditions in the rail industry. Running the rail system for profit will always mean cuts to safety, jobs and workers’ dignity.