Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Women in Victoria's Rail, Tram, Bus Union

Click to enlarge

Yesterday was spent with the women of Victoria's Rail, Tram, Bus Union at their conference at ACTU Headquarters.  My role was that of facilitator - and what a stimulating time I had.  There was a solid and interesting line-up of speakers.  Trevor Dobbyn, the State Secretary of the RTBU, kicked off proceedings.  Trevor's leadership of the RTBU has been outstanding.  He has brought the union through the trying times of the Kennett years when so much that working Victorians had worked to achieve was severely pruned or destroyed.  Under Trevor Dobbyn's leadership, the RTBU has recovered and is making great strides as a modern trade union.


Melbourne's trains are owned by the Victorian Government but run, under contract, by Metro - the second company, following Connex, to do so.  Prior to private contractors managing the rail network, Melbourne's rail network was a public sector corporation with all that means in terms of culture and management.  The industry has always been and remains male dominated.  Women comprise only about 18% of employees - and many of these are in part-time low grade positions.  A lot of work needs to be done to bring women into a position of real equality within the transport industry.  This was the purpose of yesterday's conference.  


While Trevor Dobbyn leads the charge to bring women into a more equitable position within rail and within the RTBU, the organising force on a day to day basis has been the RTBU's Women's Office, Luba Grigorovitch.  


Luba is a graduand of the Anna Stewart Memorial Project.  I know that the word 'dynamo' is a much overused word when applied to people but I can't think of a better description of Luba.  Luba has been a great discovery for the RTBU and its female members.  Currently, Luba works part-time for the RTBU but there is a feeling in the air that her position could become more substantial in the future.  When consideration is given to this, the union need look no further than the success of yesterday's Women's Conference.


Brian Boydsecretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, spoke cogently and in a down to earth way about economic events currently occurring in Europe and workers' demonstrations protesting about the loss of valued rights and entitlements. Brian Boyd warned that if such sentiments currently espoused by governments in Europe were to be taken up in Australia, workers could find themselves in situations similar to those currently being experienced in Europe.  Australian workers would be called upon to work to protect wages, conditions, and social policies which had been fought for hard and long.


Jennifer O'Donnell-Pirisi, the Women's Officer at the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VHTC) was a well-received speaker at the conference.  One of the major items she told us about was the Domestic Violence Workplace Rights and Entitlements Project being driven by the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (ADFVC).  Jenny told us of the deal between Torquay-based Surf Coast Shire and the Australian Services Union which has been hailed as possibly the world's most progressive workplace agreement on family violence. Certainly, as Jenny pointed out, this agreement is world's best practice - right here in Australia.


Employees at Surf Coast Shire now have an entitlement to 20 days of paid leave for family violence.  Jenny explained how important this was - particularly if someone was re-constructing family life and family home because of violence.  People need the stability of their job and workplace to continue functioning normally.  


Networkers, my eyes just about popped when I heard all this.  As a frontline person for women in the union movement back in the '80s and '90s, I know that none of us women trying to get a fair deal then would ever have dreamed of something like this!  Anti-discrimination legislation, equal pay for work of equal value, getting some fair treatment in the workplace in terms of training and promotion - all these were part of working women's focus!  As far as family violence went, we supported women's shelters and were thankful.  Now this great stride has been taken, I am gob-smacked!


Following these speakers came the group discussion which I facilitated.  Here I might add, that Andrew Lezala, CEO of Metro, was a guest and speaker at the Women's Conference along with two of his senior executives (both women).  Andrew Lezala's presence was no inhibition to the discussion.  The women outlined their workplace problems frankly and in detail.  Luba will be going over their comments with a fine-tooth comb.  There is plenty to work on.  


Following the group discussion, Vic Moore spoke.  Vic is the Secretary, Rail Operations, within the RTBU.  Vic Moore speaks as only someone imbued with long-standing shop-floor practicality can.  Even more relevant is that he was conversant with the history of women within the RTBU and outlined some of of that history and the battles that had been fought.  Some big shoes to be filled by modern women!


Then followed Andrew Lezala of Metro.  Andrew said that few of the matters raised in the group discussion were news to him.  He knows well the blokey culture operating in rail which brings in its wake unprofessional management styles in many ways.  


Andrew spoke well and I feel sure he had the confidence of the women present.  Andrew pointed out that many people still believed that public railway transport was engineering based and therefore male oriented.  Andrew disagrees with this premise and says that modern public railway transport is best described as customer service focussed; engineering based; and safety critical.  If it is a customer service industry, why is there not a 50/50 representation of men and women within the industry, Andrew asked.  However, even if people were to rely on the engineering based notion for a distinctively male orientation, this ignored the fact of how many female engineers were operating to-day: including Andrew's own daughter who is an engineer working in England on trains for Bombardier!  Andrew wants to see a 50/50 representation and a system which will allow people to work through the ranks more equitably with promotion to and training for satisfying jobs.


After yesterday, I am convinced of two things.  There is a growing empowerment of women within the RTBU.  A women's committee will be formally established within the union; women are asking for proportional representation on all union bodies; and, as well as the position of Women's Officer, there will be two additional positions of Women' Convenor and Deputy Women's Convenor to enhance communication and visible workplace representation by women.  There are already a number of female union delegates.  As well as all this movement at the RTBU end of things, it is clear that we will be looking for signs of Andrew Lezala's direction at Metro to achieve more equitable female representation, promotion, participation, and training within the career structures at Metro.  


Clearly, it is not only trains that are on the move.  
Women in rail are on the move too.

Click to enlarge:
Clock wise from above left:
Trevor Dobbyn - RTBU; Andrew Lezala - Metro;
Jennifer O'Donnell-Pirisi - VTHC; Vic Moore - RTBU;
Brian Boyd - VTHC

PS: I  came home with goodies:
a thank-you bouquet of flowers;
a lucky door prize of a wonderful
Body Shop gift pack; and a "show-bag"
which contained pens, cap, lipstick,
literature and chocolate.

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