Tram Refurbishment Grinds to a Halt as Workers Strike

By Andrew Martin

Workers at Downer’s East Preston workshops in Melbourne have gone on strike as negotiations for a new enterprise agreement between trade unions and the company have reached a stalemate.

Downer, one of Australia’s largest infrastructure and maintenance firms, claims it has not budgeted for the pay rises the unions – the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), and Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) – are pressing for.

Downer have offered 2.5% a year for four years. However this is a disingenuous offer as the work being conducted at the site is a life-extension project and is not continuous – meaning a four-year agreement is simply an excuse to freeze wages.

Presented with this offer, 90 of the tram workers walked off the job. It is likely the project has little over one year to go before completion. Workers on the picket line said it was unlikely to go for two more years. This is confirmed by the fact that the lease on the workshop site is set to expire and transfer to a new lease holder – Alstom. That company will use the site to conduct maintenance work on E-class trams (the latest generation light rail trams).

“The East Preston workers are from a range of trades – vehicle builders, fitters, boilermakers and electricians. Some are former auto-workers that are well used to industrial action. For many others this is the first time they’ve ever been on strike.”

What the workers are requesting is parity with other depots during the final period of the project. That is a completely reasonable demand given the high cost of living in Melbourne. Workers at other depots within the Yarra Trams network earn up to $10 an hour more and are on a 36 hour week.

Refurbished B-class at completion

The East Preston workers are from a range of trades – vehicle builders, fitters, boilermakers and electricians. Some are former auto-workers that are well used to industrial action. For many others this is the first time they’ve ever been on strike.

The strike began on July 19 which was the coldest day of the year in Melbourne and only 1ºC on the picket line. So far the picket has been effective in halting refurbishment works. Four people have crossed the picket line, but trams are not moving in or out of the depot and the action of the four is more symbolic than anything else. There are eight trams at the depot all in different states of repair. Two are near completion.

This is important work as Yarra Trams has the largest tram network in the world with some of the oldest infrastructure. It has the largest variety of rolling stock that requires specialist skills to maintain and refurbish. Much of the ageing fleet is due for retirement with structural issues and high floors that make access difficult for people with disabilities. But Yarra Trams has a general shortage of trams to cover all its routes, so continues with a fleet of trams that would be best suited to a museum. The newer trams are also not without significant problems with leaking roofs leading to mould, rotten floors and corrosion issues. Their European technology is not cheap to maintain with many complex components.

The industrial action is the result of persistent organisation from all three unions with the AMWU having the most coverage at the site. It has taken years of patience and determination against an aggressively belligerent employer to reach this point. All unionists should be encouraged by this action by tram workers.

One of the issues in dispute is the lack of permanency with the use of labour-hire to fill positions. Some of the labour-hire workers have been stood down and it is unclear if they will be reinstated upon the conclusion of the dispute.

A meeting was held on 20 July to determine what further steps to take. There was strong majority endorsement for more industrial action and spirits are high on the picket line. With inflation at over 5%, there is a lot at stake economically for these workers. Although many are struggling with a loss of wages during the strike – the company’s 2.5% offer is simply an insult. To rub salt into the wounds, Downer have also sought to remove the workers travel passes that allows them to travel freely on the tram network in Melbourne.

They are seeking:

  • a two year agreement with 5% annual pay rise
  • long-service leave to be accessible after four years
  • all fixed-term contract workers to be offered permanent jobs
  • all overtime paid double (now an industry standard for AMWU and ETU agreements in Victoria)
  • reinstatement of travel passes.

Speaking to Red Ant anonymously a fitter on the picket line stated: “Look at our demands. They are completely reasonable. We’re not asking for much, just to meet our basic needs. We know the projects [are] coming to an end, we want Downer to stop fucking us around. We’re probably here for a year. They should give us the dignity of a decent feed before they give us all the arse. The cost of living has put enormous pressure on us and we know Downer have made millions off our labour. One thing I do know. Downer has underestimated our level of unity. We’re determined to see this fight through.”

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