I have lived a fair chunk of my life in Melbourne. When I was a schoolgirl, my sister and I took the tram to school. But there were plenty of times when Mum had to drive us because the tram drivers had gone out on strike and we were stranded.
There hasn’t been a tram or train strike in Melbourne for nearly 20 years. But in the past two weeks we have had a four-hour tram strike followed by a four-hour train strike. Of course, four hours really turns into seven or eight because the drivers return the rolling stock to depots before the time at which they lose their four hours of pay. There have been other interruptions as well during the past several weeks.
Last Friday, it was pretty clear that many Melburnians didn’t bother to turn up at work in the city — parking rates are prohibitive — as a result of the train strike. The central business district was quiet save for the lightly attended but noisy demonstration organised by the (Left) Australian Rail, Tram & Bus Union that briefly gummed up the area around Federation Square. That champion of the trade union movement John Setka, Victorian secretary of the (Left) Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, is now suggesting that a good time for another train or tram stoppage would be during the football finals.
Of course, a lot has happened in the past 20 years, not least public transport being contracted out by the state government to private providers. (The winning tender involves the smallest subsidy from the taxpayer.) These days, the metropolitan train service in Melbourne is run by Metro Trains and the city’s trams are run by Yarra Trams.
If you take a look at the principal agreements covering the train and tram workers, however, little has changed from the days when these workers were full-blown public-sector employees.
Take the Metro Trains rail operations enterprise agreement 2012-15. At more than 70 pages, it is replete with unnecessary detail and restrictions on management. The agreement also provided pay rises of 15 per cent across three years, a much higher figure than the pay rises that most workers received in that time.
A fully qualified train driver earns a base rate of pay of $110,524 a year (much higher than the rate for fully qualified tram drivers — go figure). But this is just where it starts. There is an early morning allowance, an afternoon allowance and an evening allowance (that pretty much covers it). There are pages and pages of how much paid time should be allowed to walk from shunt to sidings or platforms at particular stations.
There are meal allowances, travel allowances, free interstate and intrastate train travel (including for family members and retired workers), shift allowances, penalty rates, and the list goes on. If a driver works on a public holiday (all those proclaimed by the Victorian government, which has helpfully added two to the list recently), they get time and a half plus a day off.
There is a loading of between 10 per cent and 30 per cent for training other drivers. But wait for this — it takes a minimum of 73 weeks to become a fully qualified train driver, with drivers required to master the requirements of the entire metropolitan network.
Under the agreement, “a variety of routes is to be provided on all shifts where possible”, although the total distance travelled by drivers during a shift is limited to 200km (in spread-out Melbourne). This means a driver can work four hours, knock off and be paid for a whole shift.
So what are these disruptive stoppages all about, stoppages that are causing serious embarrassment to the Andrews government, whose links to the union movement, particularly the CFMEU, are well known? For starters, the union wants a pay rise of 18 per cent across three years. (Wages are rising by less than 2 per cent a year elsewhere.) The companies are offering 17 per cent across four years in exchange for some significant changes, to rostering in particular.
The union officials, aware that public sympathy can evaporate quickly, are declaring that the dispute is not really about pay but about defending “hard-won” conditions. “Hard-won” conditions is really code for unjustified, restrictive work practices that have been arbitrated in the past.
Evidently, 73 weeks of training is the minimum to guarantee safety for drivers and the travelling public, according to the union leaders. “Hands up all those against safety” is their unconvincing message.
The broader context of this dispute is a state government that wants to provide favours to its mates in the union movement at every possible turn. No sooner had the Andrews government been elected that the Construction Code, which had the potential to rein in costs for government projects, was rescinded.
The Coalition’s move-on laws, ensuring access to businesses in the event of union picketing, were quickly ditched. And union officials’ right of entry to worksites was made easier.
Keen to do a deal with the Ambulance Employees Australia of Victoria — and the ambulance workers who had been so helpful to Labor before and during the election campaign — the Andrews government sacked the board of Ambulance Victoria and caved in to every demand of the union.
The deal was very generous, although the size of the overall package has never been made clear to the public.
This month, the Andrews government provided good news to another union friend, the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation, by moving to legislate minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, even though these ratios are stipulated in binding enterprise agreements. I guess the argument is that you can never be too sure what a mean Coalition government may do in the future — insist on flexibility and productivity, for instance.
More generally, the state government has been keen to hire more public servants and to pay them more. Wages in the Victorian public service are growing at a rate 50 per cent higher than public service wages elsewhere. Following several years of belt-tightening by the short-lived Coalition government, the first Labor budget provided for growth in employee expenses of more than 7 per cent for this financial year.
The state’s car numberplates declare: “Victoria — the place to be”. Maybe that should read: Victoria — the place to be stuck.