I am looking forward to the trip that I start on Sunday. Whilst my schedule there will be busy and tight, I will hear officially from the folks locally some real good news. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard it from my colleague there. I hope you won’t mind me not tell you which country this is about until I get there and confirm the full details. Still, let me tell you briefly what happened in the last 22 months there.
In early October 2009, at least three railway accidents have taken place in which 7 passengers were killed in one case. The locomotive engineer was driving at 100km/hour at a site where speed limit is 20km/hour. It appeared to be that he fell asleep. Unsurprisingly, the management of this state-owned railways blamed the driver for the accident caused and dismissed him.
The union responded sharply against such action. They claimed that the government has long neglected adequate investment in the industry. It meant chronic staff shortage and daily use of old and unsafe rolling stocks on the tracks. The union further cited corruption in the management. In this particular case, the train driver was working for 30 days with only a day’s rest. The safety system (vigilance device or the so called the ‘deadman’ system) did not function. The management, however, refuse to accept these arguments.
In response, the union called its workers to participate in a national industrial action. They did not want their members to operate these unsafe trains anymore. Stoppages and slow-downs began and spread. Retaliation from the authorities culminated when the police was brought in to break-up a work stoppage that one branch of the union successfully continued for nearly two weeks. There, six leaders were arrested. In addition, the management filed a damage suit to the labour court and expressed its intention to dismiss the national leadership of the union.
Our federation, to which the rail union is a member of, reacted quickly too. We sent our protest letter to the prime minister and so did our affiliates in several countries promptly. Our regional secretary travelled and met with the union within days. Some international visitors joined. During this period, the union held a mass march with other unions and wider civil society groups to the government house and met with the premier who promised to investigate the case. In the meantime, two pro-management unionists attempted to split the union but all their efforts ended in vain several months later thanks to the unity of the workers.
In gathering information, we recognised the following issues behind the dispute.
* 90 per cent of existing trains do not comply with the legislation.
* Only 20 out of total 170 locomotive cars are equipped with a vigilance device.
* Based on a cabinet resolution in 1998, only 5% of the employees who retire at the age of 60 can be replaced.
* For this reason, many drivers have to work continuously without proper rest and accidents have taken place.
In the background sits the government’s plans to privatise this state asset although the union has been more successful to campaign against it.
I felt that this is more than just an unfair dismissal case. In order to assist the union in their campaign by putting more pressure on the authorities, I proposed that we organise a “Safety Mission” together with several key rail unions from other countries.
During our week’s visit, we met with the Labour Minister, senior members of the management, UN agency representatives and press. That goes without saying all the discussions we held with the union, 6 dismissed workers and their allies. We visited three rail workshops and held our “safety inspections”. Even in this short visit, lack of investment and ageing equipments were obvious. Out press statement read: “The government and the management must develop a new safety culture with the union without delay”. “Workers should be rewarded for highlighting safety concerns – not punished”. “Workers have the right to stop work under unsafe conditions.”
Our visit coincided with the governmental tripartite committee’s final meeting on the dismissals case. It concluded in favour of reinstating the 6 workers in a close vote of 5 to 4. We were thoroughly pleased to hear this great news at the very end of our visit.
Even after we returned home, we did not stop campaigning as the management was determined to appeal this case to the court. We put more pressure on them, using LabourStart’s ActNow campaign, for example. In the end, we could not stop the company from doing so. Still, I could say that any further blatant attacks on the union have stopped.
Later I learnt that the national archive centre was requesting all information about this campaign. Interesting how our work was registered in the government record. That means they will be better prepared if the next round comes.
The tension between the management and the union seemed to have relaxed since then. Our effective and hard-working local coordinator recently briefed me on the following developments.
1. The cabinet (in the previous government) has adopted a resolution to allocate a huge budget (nearly 6 billion USD) for new investment of the state railways, including the purchase of new locomotives and equipments on trains and to build the double-track across the country.
2. The management has set-up the special committee to look after the safety issues.
3. 172 new graduating students from the railway engineering school have been employed at the state railways.
4. More locomotive drivers have been promoted and filled the shortage vacancies.
5. The management agreed with the union to recruit additional 2,483 full-time employee. This proposal, however, needs the approval of the new government. The current workforce is around 11,000.
6. The government will give more importance to the railways and all political parties highlighted their policy to upgrade the existing railways and to invest in the double track and high-speed trains in their recent election campaign.
Not bad. Actually this is quite good! Our official report will be released once I meet the union next week. Still, the dismissals case and other legal rows are unresolved so our campaign is not over.
What is the lesson learnt from this development? In my view – Fight back counts and solidarity matters. And we will have more cases like this if we can work hard at all ends.