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Issue #1443      17 February 2010

The privatisation struggle and Brisbane’s urban transport

Part 1

I have been Secretary of the Bus Union in Brisbane for over 20 years. In 1988 as a young man of 31, I was elected to fill the position of secretary of the Australian Tramway and Omnibus Employees Association (ATMOEA), an organisation covering bus workers in Brisbane City Council employment.

Trams in Adelaide Street, Brisbane, 1954.

This organisation had its birth in Brisbane’s tramway system in the early part of the 20th century and the fights against the notorious owner of the tram system, an American named Badger. Badger was viciously anti-union and the conditions for workers were particularly bad. The working day was long and at the discretion of the employer. The tram workers worked from before the sun came up until after the sun went down; there were no lockers, lunch facilities or workers’ rights.

The workers had been organising a union with moderate success and were emboldened enough to seek a federal award with their southern cousins in Sydney. To push the campaign and show the union presence in the workplace the workers decided to don their union badges at an appointed hour. The badge was the then ATEA (Australian Tramway Employees Association), a new federal union.

As is the risk in our industry when workers take action the unionists were all summarily dismissed from employment. This prompted the beginning of what was a five-week general strike in Brisbane in 1912, which gave union organisation a massive push and was the impetus behind the election of the TJ Ryan Labor government in 1917.

The battle itself was bitter and involved the now famous episodes of Black Tuesday in which the authorities swore in hundreds of special constables who attacked the striking workers at Market Street (close to where King George Square is today and a scene also of the battle with unions in 1948 when Fred Paterson and other unionists were also attacked and beaten by the police).

It was in this battle that Emma Miller earned fame as the woman who hat-pinned the Commissioner’s horse and unseated him, an event now celebrated by the Queensland Council of Unions support for the Emma Miller Hat Pin award to women unionists who make outstanding contributions to the workers’ movement.

The struggle itself ended with the strikers returning to work victorious and having a federal award only to be sacked a week later. The strike had run out of energy. The federal Arbitration Court ordered reinstatement, only to be bereft of the constitutional power to do so.

From this position the newly emerging trade union movement campaigned and eventually won the creation of a Tramway Trust to administer a publicly owned and operated tram system in 1924. The tramway now was also the source of electrical power to the City of Brisbane which came into being in 1926 from the amalgamation of the small councils that existed at the time. Ironically the state-registered Tramway Employees Union lent the city some of its money to get going and the city took over the Tramway Trust in the hands of a Council Transport Department, which also made a profit for the tramway system and the city selling electric power. The electric system was stolen by the National Party state government in the 1960s and the tramway was then deprived of a source of funding.

In the 1960s an American economist and transport expert Wilbur Smith visited Brisbane and pushed for the introduction of freeway systems and for the abolition of the tramway service as this was in his view impeding the development of the city. The campaign found a receptive ear in the state government and in the then Lord Mayor Clem Jones who had a lot of undeveloped land on the outskirts of Brisbane. It was decided that buses would be cheaper to expand the city and that the trams got in the way of the car. A decision was made to build a northern freeway and a south eastern freeway. The people of northern Brisbane had other ideas and defeated the northern freeway. In the south-east they managed only to delay its construction. In the mean time schemes were set aside to get rid of the trams.

The decision having been made the tramway union launched what was to be another long strike. The union’s resources were used up feeding its members and keeping them together during the strike. At the end of the dispute they secured the continuation of the tram line services through buses running over the old routes and still in Brisbane City Council hands. This was despite the despicable role played by later-to-be Sir Jack Edgerton, the president of the Trades and Labor Council appointed by Labor Party forces when the Communist president Gerry Dawson stepped down as part of a united front ticket.

A long battle then developed where the Tramways’ and Omnibus Union successfully moved more private companies into council ownership, red and white buses and Cribb Island, to name but a few. This was going on in centres all over Australia as they consolidated publicly owned systems in all capital cities. Canberra and Darwin, not ever having had a tram system, instead started with public buses with the Transport Workers’ Union as the new arrival in the bus industry being the organising force. In Brisbane they had threatened tramway jobs in opposing the extension of the tramway union to trolley buses with the Brisbane City Council entering to contain the more socialistic Bus and Tram Union to Brisbane.

Threats of privatisation of council buses were made during the 1970s but these were not at a serious level and were deflected by the union. But in the late 1980s under the influence of the Hawke Labor government the agenda was changing. In 1985 the SEQEB electricity workers were sacked and emergency legislation was enacted to restrict strikes. The reactionary Joh Bjelke Petersen government began its push for individual contracts. Suncorp Metway and Powers Brewery were used to set up non-union agreements with inferior wages and conditions. The industrial Accord of the federal Labor government was beginning and a series of special ACTU congresses were devastating in breaking the left in the trade union movement under Bill Kelty’s leadership. The union movement was co-operating with the “economic rationalist model of Labor for social wages in return”.

It was in this period that our struggle against privatisation and for expansion of public transport was set. World Expo was just ending and the council employers had decided to cutback the workforce and impose a restructuring on workers. Kelty and the ACTU were calling for award restructuring and this was reshaping the working conditions of millions of Australian workers.

On top of this, in 1987, the then Liberal council launched an idea to slash jobs in the Brisbane City Council and many jobs went in traditional blue collar areas or were outsourced, the issue at the centre of the SEQEB dispute.

After Expo the Liberal council decided to assist the private employer Hornibrook out of financial difficulty and hand the operation of the service at Sandgate, an outer northern suburb of Brisbane, to the private bus company managed by a relation of the then Liberal leader. Some negotiations were held between the union and transport management, but they were going no where so the drivers held a 24-hour stoppage. This was extremely risky as all the anti-union laws were still in place and threats were made by the then Ahern National Party government to fine the union.

After a prolonged period of struggle the union reached an agreement guaranteeing jobs and expansion into a new growth area and the continuation of some services that would have been lost under the council. The Sandgate service went to the private operator along with $200,000 in cash, as we later found out when the deal became public under a new administration. As it turned out the new growth area was better value, but this contract has continued to be preserved and at times expanded by the councils of both Labor and Liberal. Within the union this dispute became known as the Hornibrook dispute; one tactic was to raise the economic demands of the union in conjunction with the political demands.

During the Hornibrook dispute the new union leadership learnt the value of putting the social demands ahead of the economic. Great support grew for our union during this campaign as we were fighting for the services of the working people in this area. This was a lesson learnt and refined in future campaigns. We successfully held the full-time jobs of our members and defeated two conservative regimes.

Our union played its role in ending the National Party government of Ahern and Electing the Goss Labor government. Goss sent a young man, Mike Kaiser, to ask us if we would forward a letter of commitment from him to our members guaranteeing 100 percent subsidy from the state government to the council buses. These were hugely under-funded and our members were grossly underpaid.

The base wage in 1988 under the state wages system was $100 a week behind the Sydney bus drivers. We were a little sceptical but wrongly thought he couldn’t walk away from a commitment given so publicly and solemnly to all our members in such a way. So all our members received the letter and later we all received an education in the deceptions practised by right-wing labour politicians.

Part two of this article will appear in a future issue of The Guardian.

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