Qld rail unions play in the courts while members take strike action

Hundreds of rail workers in Townsville and Redbank struck on June 8 against the Queensland government’s plans to privatise the rail network. The strike involved workshop staff of both regions and freight train drivers in Townsville. The strike ended after 48 hours with Labor Premier Anna Bligh seeking return to work orders from the federal government’s industrial relations body, Fair Work Australia.

The strike was not authorised by any of the rail unions, and organisers distanced themselves from the action. A spokesperson from the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, Les Moffit, was quoted by the ABC as saying: “At the moment, we’re in damage control in the union trying to get on top of it. While I don’t condone what the guys have done, I can fully understand ... how they feel.”

Despite the majority of Queenslanders — 85%, according to recent polls — being opposed to the sell-off, none of the rail unions have led a consistent campaign of action. Workers have been forced to use their own initiative, limited by federal Labor’s repressive industrial relations laws and the capitulation of their union leaders.

Benefits only the wealthy

The strike came in response to the release of the state budget for 2010-11. The government claims it is losing $1.2 billion in interest payments a year and has been spending billions of dollars on infrastructure such as the upgrade of the Ipswich motorway. However, it has since revised the budget deficit of $15 billion down to $7.5 billion, no doubt helped by the revenue from hauling coal, but also indicating that the figures were plucked out of the air. Most people are aware that any government revenue raised by the asset sale will be offset by the loss of future income. The only people to benefit will be the shareholders of the privatised enterprises.

Bligh is hoping the sales, including QR National, the port of Brisbane, the Abbot Point coal terminal, Queensland Motorways and Forestry Plantations Queensland, will raise $15 billion. The government has already received $603 million for the forests, but this was the only mention of privatisations in the budget. The sale of QR follows a restructuring that split it into several divisions. QR’s freight and coal division is up for sale, including the maintenance workshops in Mackay, Redbank, Rockhampton and Townsville. Passenger services will remain owned by the government. The float will take place in stages, with the initial offer expected to raise $3 billion. The government seeks to retain 25 to 40% of the enterprise. Individual shareholders will be able to own up to 15% of the stock.

The real motives are not to protect the state government’s finances, but to shore up the profits of the mining companies. In 2008, Queensland’s 54 coal mines produced a record 188 million tonnes of coal. According to the climate action group Six Degrees, the Queensland government has committed $15.6 billion to meet the infrastructure needs of the state’s coal industry over the next 20 years. The government plans to double the mining of coal by 2030. This will have dire consequences for the environment. The currently planned expansion of Queensland coal exports will emit an additional 460 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year ­— equivalent to the emissions of 65 average coal-fired power stations.

In the last two years, QR has spent $2.5 billion just on expanding, upgrading and maintaining the rail line for coal. According to Lance Hockridge, CEO of QR, “A railway at the end of the day is basically a big conveyor belt”. All this investment is at taxpayers’ expense, but very little has been done to improve passenger services. QR is also seeking joint ventures with the coal companies, but this has not satisfied the companies, which have employed former NSW premier Nick Greiner as their negotiator and want to buy the “below rail track assets” — the rail-line — for $4.85 billion. The coal companies’ bid also has the backing of Martin Ferguson, the ALP federal minister for resources and energy.

This is a paltry offer, considering that the state has more than 9500 km of rail line in operation. The real value is virtually impossible to work out because the costs of building a railway are complex. According to the website railway-technical.com, the cost of building a railway, including electrical and mechanical equipment, can vary from US$2 million to as much as $330 million per km. In 1998, building the Brisbane airport link cost $16.2 million per km, and it is only a surface railway without any steep gradients or tunnels. Even if the coal companies paid $40 billion, they would be getting a steal, not to mention future profits.

Unions cash in

Rail unions have sought to exploit the sell-off for their own financial gain by suing QR for breaching consultation provisions in their collective agreements. They are seeking $660,000 in damages for a total of 20 breaches. The Queensland Supreme Court has ruled in the unions’ favour.

This hasn’t been the unions’ only gambit. Incredibly, they’ve also sought an alliance with the coal companies. Unions have met with executives from BHP, Xstrata, Anglo and Macarthur Coal in a bid to find “common ground” to derail the sale. There are 14 coal companies operating in Queensland, and they support the privatisation of trains and rolling stock, but not the rail track. Where the unions expect to find “common ground” is mystifying, but their unholy alliance makes it not surprising that they’ve refused to use the most powerful weapon against the sale: the withdrawal of the labour of the train drivers responsible for hauling half of the entire world’s trade in coking coal.

Rather than wage an industrial campaign against the privatisation, the unions have made a show of opposition in much the same way they opposed the previous federal Coalition government’s Work Choices laws. They claimed that anyone who advocated industrial action was opposed to “community action”, as if the two are somehow not compatible. What this “community action” was to consist of was never made clear, although a few billboards were placed around the state. Assurances were given that TV advertisements would be aired to counter the government’s propaganda, but they never appeared. There was very little in the way of community forums or leafleting the general public, and it was a long stretch between rallies opposing the sell-off, with no attempt to include administrative staff, train guards or drivers in any meaningful way. The majority of workers at the community rallies were maintenance staff, despite the fact that they are the smallest sector of QR’s workforce.

Manoeuvres in ALP

The main strategy for opposing the sell-off has been manoeuvres behind closed doors to pressure Labor MPs to back down. This culminated in an appeal to get 50% of unions affiliated to the ALP to sign a petition for an ALP special state conference. The unions might or might not have been able to get the numbers for this, but Labor Party officials warned that because of PM Kevin Rudd’s support for the Bligh government’s privatisation agenda, such a special conference might jeopardise federal Labor’s re-election chances.

These warnings were enough to get the unions to abandon their oush for a special ALP state conference to debate the asset sell-off. The capitulation of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union was particularly brazen. At a delegates conference in March, AMWU national secretary Dave Oliver went as far to say: “We cannot let the issue of the privatisation of QR affect the outcome of the federal election, as Queensland has a significant number of marginal seats”. He went on to stoke up the fears of what might happen if a Coalition government headed by Tony Abbot was elected. Delegates from QR were unimpressed.

At a subsequent union meeting at Redbank, a delegate moved that Andrew Dettmar, AMWU state secretary, should resign from that position if he didn’t step down from his other position as ALP state president. The motion got up, and Dettmar was booed from the meeting when he tried to defend his position.

For all their talk about “community building”, the union officials have failed to mobilise the membership in a concerted campaign of industrial stoppages or seriously build any sort of movement against the sell-off. The union bureaucrats’ first loyalty is to a party that puts the capitalist class’ interests first and provides them with a career path to cushy parliamentary seats. As long as the unions are dominated by such middle-class careerists, there will be no serious fight against Queensland Labor’s privatisation agenda.

[Andrew Martin is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and, until last month, was employed as a fitter at QR’s Redbank workshop.]