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  Issue No 34 Official Organ of LaborNet 08 October 1999  

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Interview

A Crack to the Skull

Interview with Peter Lewis

Rail, Tram and Bus Union state secretary Nick Lewocki took on the Carr Government's radical rail refrom agenda and walked away a winner. He looks back on the week the trains stood still.

 
 

RBTU state secretary Nick Lewocki

Why was industrial action necessary last week?

It was necessary because City Rail management walked away from trying to negotiate a proper settlement and tried to use management prerogatives to suggest that negotiations had now been exhausted. Their position was that they were proposing to roll out the station reform without any further consultation with the union.

As someone that's been around industrial relations for a fair view years how do you rate the performance of the State Rail managers?

Well, I think that their performance was pretty poor. They were running a government line, not an industrial line, because what became absolutely clear towards the end of these negotiations was that there was an economic outcome required that had nothing to do with proper station working or improved station working.

What leads you to that conclusion?

Well, we sat at the negotiating table and argued along the lines that the Minister was publicly saying that this reform was about - putting additional people out to service customers, improving customer service. And during the negotiations it became absolutely clear that that was not the criteria that management was adopting, and each time that we put a proposal forward that would have increased the staffing levels above what they proposed, they would run the economic modelling and come back to change their position. So we became absolutely convinced that this was an economic argument and had little or nothing to do with improved station working.

So it really goes back to the Minister doesn't it?

Well, it does go back to the Minister. It became clear that they had little room to move. It's clear to us that Treasury and the Minister have said to management "This is the target that you need to achieve by reducing costs. How you do it? We don't care!"

Stepping back a little bit, you've been around the rail industry for a fair while...

Since 1963.

Give us a bit of your background on how you've seen the industry change.

The industry has gone through massive change. When I joined the railways in 1963 we had close to 50,000 rail workers. Today it's less than 20,000. A lot of that change has been brought about through rationalisation. New technology coming into the industry. Certainly some closure of workshops, and privatisation in some areas. But on the stations in particular, we've not seen a lot change when it comes to the operation of stations. The technology that has come in - there's been some ticket vending machines, the accounting system on stations have changed, the handling of small parcels - small freight - was taken away and that did diminish some jobs but the customer service and ticket sales really haven't changed very much over the last 100 years. The technology that was introduced through ticket vending machines was flawed technology. Most people avoid ticket vending machines and still go to the booking office window.

Less than 12 months ago, we went through an exercise under workplace reform to look at multi-skilling and cross-skilling and looking at how people could be more productive, and that resulted in 250 job positions being taken out of City Rail stations and people being elevated and being given new grades of pay increases.

Now at that time we told our members that this would lead to some job security for them. Now, as I say, 12 months later, because the government appears to have a shortfall due to the State budget, what we are finding is that an economic proposal was put forward and management tried to negotiate that as if it was a genuine industrial issue. It became obvious to us that it didn't matter that what we put forward were sensible proposals about retaining staff; retaining customer service; ensuring customer and staff security. All those issues were not negotiable because every time they ran the economic model through, they weren't getting the sort of savings that the Minister's obviously directed them to get.

So, are these savings the Minister is seeking actually achievable

Absolutely not. They're achievable if you downsize stations by 600 staff, if you take away customer service, if you reduce the number of people who are hands on. This argument means managers are managing one to three is an absolute nonsense. I mean, these guys are workers: they sell tickets, they make train announcements and do day to day work with the wages staff. It's only at the larger stations where you would have a Station Manager, who only manages. But you know, they would have a staff of 50 to 60 and it's quite proper that there's sufficient managerial responsibility to have a full time manager. But, at all the suburban stations - all these so called managers are all working bodies. They don't sit in the back room supervising two staff. And that was the lie that was being put to the public. And that's what really inflamed this situation.

All that said, I still believe we could have negotiated a sensible outcome had the Government agreed that they would take the economics out of the debate and go back to looking at proper staffing and proper customer service.

Do you think Carl Scully has a vision of what he wants the rail system to look like at the end of this process?

It appears to me that Carl Scully is a captive of the Treasury people insofar as he's told that budgets had to be cut. I'm disappointed that he didn't stand up to them and say "Look we are running a public transport system, money has to be found to run a proper public transport system." I'm disappointed he didn't stand up and say "This industry is an industry that's had ongoing reform. That over the last couple of decades we've slashed 20,000 jobs right across the rail industry. It is now efficient and any further attack on staffing levels means that those efficiencies would be lost".

Now, I would have expected a Labor Minister to be arguing that sort of position very strongly with the unions. It seems he's caved in to the economic rationalists and put pressure on his managers to go out on a slash and burn exercise and it hasn't assisted that some of the Human Resource and IR managers who have been recruited from outside the industry over the last couple of years have adopted a very bully-boy, hairy chested approach to these negotiations, saying management's got the right to run the system how it sees fit. And negotiation became a farce in the end.

During negotiations, while our union sat at the negotiation table, District Managers were visiting station by station telling people what the reforms would mean to their jobs; identifying which jobs were surplus; and this was even before we got to a stage of talking about a resource plan. Now, it's little wonder that our members said we don't trust management and it's no good you guys continuing to negotiate because they're not serious about it.

If you were Transport Minister what would be your vision for the future of rail?

My vision for the future of rail is that it's really no different to what the community expects. What the community expects is to ensure that our trains and stations are clean; that there are staff available to meet customer service needs; that security is addressed; ontime running is addressed; and that fares are maintained at a reasonable level.

Now, I don't think the community wants very much more than that from a public transport system. Public transport plays a very important role in the commerce of Sydney. You have a look at our CBD stations where 80 per cent of all passenger journeys end up in the CBD. They bring shoppers to the CBD; they bring workers to the CBD; they contribute to the State economy - and those things need to be taken into consideration - . the role public transport plays in boosting business; creating jobs; and making sure that people in the western suburbs have a reliable train service to get to the jobs they need to.

Now, you don't have to have a great vision for public transport if you meet that simple criteria. It means continued modernisation. Improving the quality of our trains - the comfort of our trains. We need obviously to maintain improved signalling, track upgrading and station presentation. And if we do those simple things, I think the public would be very happy to say we've got a reliable, clean and safe public transport system.

Finally, given what happened in the talks last week, are you confident about your ongoing relationship with the Minister? Can you work with him?

We have to work with whatever Minister is in the Ministry. Whether it's Liberal or Labor. We've done that before and we have to do that. But I believe that the relationship between our organisation and the Ministry, and particularly my personal relationship with the Minister will be one of a professional one only.

I don't believe that we will be able to restore the dialogue that we had previous to this dispute where I thought the Minister was receptive to ideas that we were putting forward from a union point of view. We were able, in a constructive way, to debate some of the issues that the Government was anticipating it might have to confront leading up to the Olympics and the opening of the new Homebush Stadium and the sort of workplace reform that would be attached to changed technology and newer trains coming in. And we were quite open and frank with the Minister during our discussions but it appears to us that the Minister has taken our responsible attitude as a position of weakness. That we'll just roll over. Well, that's not the case and our position has hardened now.

Our members' position has reached a stage where they no longer trust the Government or City Rail management and we now will be consulting very broadly with our membership on all future proposals and we won't be wasting months and months in negotiations. If we can't resolve the issue in a sensible way; in a short period of time; within a reasonable period of time; we'll be taking it back to our membership.

So, we might not have seen the end of the industrial action on the rail?

Well, you know, on any day we have five or six disputes running within the State Rail Authority. I believe statistics would show that this union appears more than any other union in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. We've appeared on over 50 occasions from January this year. .

On 50 different issues?

Well, some of them are the same issues, but certainly where there have been 50 appearances there we have got disputes with our signallers, our train controllers; our station staff; our guards; our workshops; our clerical admin area; the Countrylink. You can just go on and on. There are disputes in every area of this industry. Now, any one of those disputes has the potential to flare up into industrial action of various forms and the industrial relations situation in State Rail has deteriorated and you know, our confidence in the Minister to be able to manage this has diminished when we look at the way he's managed this current dispute and the way he's personally attacked this union publicly to try and discredit us.


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 34 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: A Crack to the Skull
Rail, Tram and Bus Union state secretary Nick Lewocki took on the Carr Governmentís radical rail refrom agenda and walked away a winner. He looks back on the week the trains stood still.
*
*  Economics: Green Backs and Dirty Dollars
Paul Ehlrich says the real culprit behind the environmental crisis isn't so much the huge numbers of people in the world or conspicuous over-consumption in the West but an economic system that confuses price with cost.
*
*  Unions: Tally Ho!
A landmark meat industry decision might not have the impact the reith cheer-squad hopes for.
*
*  History: The Western Express
West Australian historians are undertaking a project to chronicle that state's rich rail history.
*
*  Republic: The Referendum: A Spot of Reading
John Passant looks a the propaganda passing as information in the lead-up to the referendum.
*
*  Indigenous: Australia Snubs Nose at the UN
The United Nations General Assembly will be told that Australia has breached an international convention on racial discrimination that Malcolm Fraserís Government ratified 24 years ago.
*
*  International: Desert Flashpoint
The United Nations has confirmed that demonstrations were suppressed in Western Sahara last month.
*
*  Review: Temper Democratic
Humphrey McQueen has been a fearless critic of received opinions across a range of subjects for many years, and as a consequence has been criticised or more often ignored in debates in Australia.
*
*  Satire: Tax Cuts Come in the Nick of Time for Struggling Packers
Welfare groups have called upon on the Federal Government to bring forward the date of proposed capital gains tax cuts.
*
*  Labour Review: What's New in the Information Centre
Read the latest issue of Labour Review, a resource for union officials and students.
*

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