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Is This The Rail Life?: No Longer Jobs To Count On

Workers taking action outside of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria

Workers taking action outside of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria

“The Metro Tunnel is around the corner and we need skilled workers who understand health and safety issues on the railways,” said RTBU Secretary Luba Grigorovitch addressing a rally outside Flinders Street Station last week. “We’ve got decades of knowledge in these jobs that they’re trying to slash and we need to stick together to ensure it doesn’t happen.”

This goes right to the heart of the job cuts that Metro Trains are trying to enact with recent announcements about redundancies.

“When you took a job in the rail, it used to be a job for life,” RTBU organiser Vik Sharma told that same crowd. “It was a career. But they’re trying to destroy it all.”

This week, two stories are really highlighting the erosion of conditions in the rail industry. 

As we reported earlier, workers at Downer, who build and maintain Victoria’s trains, are on strike over increased use of fixed-term contracts. No resolution has yet been reached, and actions are likely to continue. 

“This is what every company does,” says RTBU organiser Bryan Evans. “They’re taking a piece of the pie that used to be the Public Transport Corporation and just looking to maximise profits and send them overseas. That should be for us!”

He argues that Downer are deliberately entrenching insecure work in order to destabilise and weaken the workforce. “They want people to have that expectation that they could be gone by Christmas, so they won’t stand up to this mob.”

These are not the only transport workers whose jobs are at risk. The entire rail industry is seeing a dramatic shift towards a much harsher corporate culture, driven by profits over outcomes for passengers or workers.

Rally to Fight Redundancies

Metro Trains has recently declared a number of staff at Flinders Street and other city stations to be no longer essential and are looking to make them redundant. The decision to do so was announced, with no consultation, but the union have managed to stall the decision temporarily. The workers, who effectively manage the smooth operations of their stations by assisting the public with everything from directions to mobility issues, are the subject of a proposed “restructure” - Metro’s terminology - that would see their jobs cut. 

A lunchtime stoppage was held last Wednesday to protest the treatment of these workers, some of whom have been employed for as long as 30 years. They are highly experienced Station Masters and Passenger Services workers, and the attack on them is quite blatantly an attack on the services commuters rely on.

In possibly the most 2020s thing to ever happen, the staff were informed via an impromptu Zoom meeting that their jobs were going to be cut.

RTBU and community members rally to oppose the redundancies

RTBU and community members rally to oppose the redundancies

Station Masters Targeted

Walter Phillips is a Station Master employed by Metro Trains. Aside from having possibly the coolest job title in all of Melbourne, he is proud of the work he does and wants to keep doing it. 

“To say that I am very disappointed would be an understatement,” he said. “Me and my colleagues are gutted that this was just all of a sudden dropped on us.”

In possibly the most 2020s thing to ever happen, the staff were informed via an impromptu Zoom meeting that their jobs were going to be cut.

“We had no idea this was coming. We have been working on the frontline, and the job of Station Master requires so much work. So much work! Me and my colleagues have been giving 110% effort for the company, including this last year when the company expected us to support them.”

Walter Phillips, a Metro Trains Station Master, addresses the rally

Walter Phillips, a Metro Trains Station Master, addresses the rally

“All the staff have done everything we could. We’ve given up our overtime. We’ve been working with less staff. With vacancies. And now, when COVID is nearly over, all of a sudden we get this huge shock. I’m definitely going to be fighting this.”

Metro Trains’ Pattern of Profiteering

As much as we love our train network in Melbourne, the company running it makes that love difficult. During the pandemic, Metro received more than $50 million of taxpayer money to make sure that the train system kept working. On top of that, Metro got over $16 million in bonuses to ensure that the trains were running on time. A lot of this money was sent overseas to Metro’s parent company, MTR Corporation, headquartered in Hong Kong. 

RTBU Secretary Luba Gregorovitch addresses the rally

RTBU Secretary Luba Gregorovitch addresses the rally

“And how do they repay Victorian taxpayers?” asks RTBU Secretary Luba Gregorovitch. “The first thing they do this year, when COVID is hopefully looking to be on the way out, is slash jobs and tell us that they’re going to make a whole grade redundant.

Fair Work Act Prevents Further Action

Those familiar with the Fair Work Act will know that it sets very strict limits on when and why industrial action can be taken. 

The RTBU is seeking to address the issue through the dispute resolution procedure laid out in the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). In April the union wrote a letter to the employer stating that Metro Trains’ actions were in breach of the EBA’s requirements for a joint review into the structure of the positions, and as such would be exploring all options available to them for EBA breaches. 

As the EBA is in force, industrial action is prohibited.

A proper strike can only take place during collective bargaining prior to the signing of an EBA or after its expiry. Industrial action that does not meet this criteria can (and often does) result in severe fines for individuals and their unions. 

“We took Metro to Federal Court last week and I’m proud to say we had a good outcome,” RTBU Secretary Luba Grigorovitch reports. “Because of those proceedings, we’ve been able to slow the company down.” But it isn’t a resolution. Not yet. 

The workers will be holding onto their jobs, for the time being. A similar action by the company has been attempted, and defeated, in the past.

Only time will tell if history is going to repeat itself. 

“When you took a job in the rail, it used to be a job for life,” RTBU organiser Vik Sharma told a crowd gathered outside Flinders Street Station last week. “It was a career. But they’re trying to destroy it all.” This week, two stories are really highlighting the erosion of conditions in the rail industry.

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