Railworkers' eight month struggle
by Marcus Browning Since last August US-based freight rail company Genessee Wyoming — the joint owner of Australian Southern Railroad (ASR) with agribusiness giant Wesfarmers — has been trying to impose a company contract on workers who operate its South Australian, Northern Territory and Western Australian line. Picketing workers at the marshalling yard at Port Adelaide have been removed bodily by the police from the picket, which began on March 6. Last Monday, March 19, ASR issued a non-union collective agreement after withdrawing from an in-principle agreement on March 15. The non-union proposal offers lower terms than were provided in the in-principle agreement reached with the Rail, Bus and Tram Union (RTBU). ASR bought the South Australian Freight operations from Australian National Railways when it was privatised in 1997. It provides the lowest pay and worst conditions of the three main rail companies operating the Melbourne- Adelaide-Perth corridor. The other two are the National Rail Corporation and Freight Australia. The workers have not had a pay increase for three and a half years. The RTBU is examining the content of ASR's proposal, but are confident the members will reject it. "Despite three hard years for the union in this company since late 1997, the employees have shown their strong support for the union's campaign for a new enterprise agreement", said RTBU SA-NT Secretary, Ray Hancox. "The management has alienated the workers by their erratic and high-handed behaviour in the past two weeks." The union consulted the members as it developed its log of claims, and has found there is a high level of support for the campaign, with over 90 percent "aware and angry that ASR wages and conditions are so poor". The RTBU met with management on March 13-16 to reach the in-principle agreement on the major outstanding issues for an enterprise agreement. These are: 1) Remuneration package, with a pay increase over three years of 5%, 5%, 4% and for power shunters 10%, 3%, 3%. Also, an annual bonus pool capped at $200,000 for all employees (working out at around 3%). 2) Relay operations [necessary because of the long distances] for a four- person relay working 12 hours maximum shift whilst in the locomotive and 12-hour minimum shift breaks in the relay van. 3) Payment for relay work to be hour for hour while in the locomotive and half hour for hour while on shift break in the van. 4) Total hours while in the relay will be credited to the 84 hours per fortnight. 5) The boundary for relay work will be no further than Broken Hill in NSW. 6) Meal allowance will be $12 for every eight hours. There were also to be strict shift limits for driver-only operations and a regime for fatigue management. The next day ASR announced that the in-principle agreement had been withdrawn, that the wage offer would be 4%, 3%, 3%, with no capped bonus pool, there would be no recognition of the hours in the crew van, no limitation on the use of relay work and that driver-only operations would include 12-hour shifts. On March 13, ASR also took out injunctions against 21 RTBU members in the Federal Court following strike action on March 6-7. But the judge would not hear the injunctions against the individual employees because the papers were improperly served. ASR also failed to obtain an interlocutory injunction to prevent the union and ASR employees taking protected industrial action. These actions by ASR management only served to harden the resolve of the workers. The union says there is to be more industrial action while ASR continues to push its non-union agenda.