Queensland rail dispute:
Success for united unions
Following a 48-hour statewide rail strike Queensland Rail (QR) has agreed to the inclusion of a special clause in railworkers' enterprise agreement that permits further wage rises during the period of the agreement to take into consideration the consequences of the GST on workers' cost of living. Rail operations across Queensland — including metropolitan services and coal trains — were shut down during the strike. The campaign and the industrial action were noteworthy for the united action by the five rail unions — the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU); the Metal Workers; CEPU Electrical Division; the Engine Drivers (AFULE Q); and the Queensland Services Union. The unions had sought two wages rises of six per cent each over two years, in anticipation of the likely inflationary effect of the GST. "Unions and members believed that the tax cuts associated with the introduction of the GST would be inadequate to compensate for the increases in the cost of living flowing from the introduction of the GST", said Trevor Campbell, Queensland Branch President of the RTBU. QR offered 3.5 per cent on signing the enterprise agreement and a further three per cent in July 2001. The offer excluded any other claims. Stopwork meetings on January 19 were almost unanimous in their rejection of Queensland Rail's proposals. QR said it was not prepared to agree to the inclusion of any provision in the agreement that was designed to protect workers' wages from the impact of a significant increase in inflation as a result of the GST, interest rate rises or the movement in other commodity prices such as petrol. At all the major rallies workers expressed their frustration and anger at QR's "insulting" offer. The anger is not just about wage rates, but also growing insecurity, frustration and dissatisfaction with management in the industry. There have been job losses through downsizing and technological change, a recruitment and selection process that rail workers are unhappy with, and an employee-management system that is regularly abused by management. Workers are also concerned about privatisation and its attendant competition policy, including third party access to rail tracks. So far Queensland Rail have stuck with an integrated public rail system, but for how much longer? On February 3 there were further stopwork meetings authorising the unions to "call any action necessary in pursuit of the claim". Again the members were almost unanimous. The 48-hour strike action commenced at midnight on Tuesday February 7. It was well supported by members who were in a fighting mood. They remained out following orders on the Wednesday from the Industrial Relations Commission to return to work. It was only on the second day that agreement to return to work was reached — following a shift in the position of QR. The package agreed upon backdates a 3.5 percent wage rise to January 2000 and gives a three percent rise in January 2001 — not July 2001 as sought by QR. The backdating is important because the agreement still has to be distributed to members and voted upon before signing. The RTBU estimates that these two measures are worth around an additional $730 for many of the workers. Originally QR was only prepared to apply 50 per cent of the two increases (3% & 3.5%) to the aggregate allowance of Traincrew. The unions sought 100 percent of the rate. The agreement gives 75 per cent for that component. The full rate will apply to other allowances. As for the GST, the wage rises in the new agreement do not exclude additional increases, depending on the impact of the GST, but these will still have to be fought for.