Wellington rail strike – end contracting out!

Privatisation, in the form of contracting out, lies behind the Wellington rail dispute between Rail and Maritime Transport Union members and their employers Transdev Wellington and its maintenance subcontractor Hyundai Rotem. Greater Wellington Regional Council contracted Transdev to operate the region’s passenger services from July 2016 for 15 years. Previously the service was run by Trans Metro, the regional arm of state-owned KiwiRail. The railway workers went over to Transdev and Hyundai Rotem on the conditions of their existing collective agreement. Lo and behold, at the first opportunity Transdev and Hyundai Rotem are attempting to cut conditions. The main attack is a pay cut. Transdev want to cut penalty rates: double-time down to time-and-a-half, and time-and-a-half down to time-and-a-quarter.

The rail workers faced a stark choice: submit or resist. The 24-hour strike on Thursday 16 November was a demonstration that the RMTU, ably supported by bus drivers refusing to provide replacement services, has considerable power to disrupt the economy. The potential is there for the RMTU and the bus drivers’ Tramways Union to combine and successfully defend conditions of all the region’s transport workers.

RMTU General Secretary Wayne Butson said in a media release, “We all regret the disruption this will cause for Wellington commuters, and we encourage them to ask the regional council, and their Mayors, some hard questions about why big international companies are being allowed to run down good Wellington jobs.”

While we need not worry about disruption, or whether it is international or local thieving companies, Wayne Butson is right to point the finger at Greater Wellington Regional Council. In March 2016 Chris Laidlaw, Chair of the regional council, told the public that the contract with Transdev would deliver savings of $100m over the 15-year term. Where did Mr Laidlaw think the cost savings would come from?

The contracting out system is designed for cost-cutting. With few variables, the main target is workers’ jobs, terms and conditions.

It is not just rail workers who are under threat by the regional council’s transport contracts. The Council contracts out 18 “units” of the region’s bus services – this is highly inefficient and prevents fully-integrated ticketing. In June and July next year a new contractor Tranzit Coachlines takes over the largest units and another new contractor, Uzabus, takes the Kapiti unit. The new contracts do not even guarantee that the existing bus workers will transfer to the new employers, let alone do they protect existing terms and conditions.

The Wellington branch of the Tramways Union says that “the proposed new contracts would see two major changes to driver employment conditions – the casualisation of employee contracts, and a flat rate of pay in place of the current pay system, which provides a penal rate with increased pay in weekends and evenings.”

The common denominator to this contracting out of rail and bus services is pay cuts – or to put it another way: private profit.

The whole contracting out system should be abolished. Rail and bus transport are public services paid for by our rates and ticket prices. Private companies are not required. What is required is the workforce whose knowledge, skills and effort delivers the services in practice. In a socialist society transport services would be run by the workers themselves. In immediate terms there is an overwhelming case now for integrated public transport services being directly operated by the democratically-elected regional councils themselves.

It so happens that the parties in the new government have spoken a lot about public services and increasing workers’ pay. On 25 October, the Prime Minister told the Council of Trade Unions’ conference, “I want to see an end to the race to the bottom on wages. … Right now we have bus drivers in Wellington set to lose their jobs or take pay cuts. The company they work for has lost the contract to a different firm, which has offered a lower cost to the regional council on the basis of reducing staff pay packages. That’s not the way forward for New Zealand.”

It is time for the union movement, members of the Labour and Green parties and the whole left to demand of the government that the legislation that enforces the contracting out of services by regional councils be repealed as a matter of urgency and that direct services are set up.

Let us also remember where the regional councillors stood on contracting out when it comes to the 2019 elections.