Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

I was president of the Wellington Tramways Union from 2008 to 2012.

After the baptism of fire that was the 2008 bus lock out, things quickly turned to internal matters. The branch elections where I had become president were the first in over a decade.

The national council of the Tramways Union, which still had two other branches in Auckland and Dunedin had not met since 1992. After deregulation of the public transport sector in the late 1980s most of the other Tramways Union branches in New Zealand had collapsed. The history of the national Tramways Union had been that national meetings tended to result in vicious fights, particularly between the Auckland and Wellington branches. So, from the early 1990s the union avoided holding the meetings. The 3 remaining branches had operated independently for nearly 20 years, but in 2008 a court case ruled that the national union was still the incorporated body so needed to meet, have elections etc. From 2008 on wards the national council met yearly, with a new constitution making sure everything was legal.

Above: Wellington Tramways Union member Barbara Hunter at picket in Wellington supporting Auckland Bus Drivers who were locked out in October 2009. 

Above: Nick Kelly speaking to protesters supporting Auckland Bus Drivers during their lockout in October 2009. 

The yearly national council meetings were civil, and a useful forum to share information and idea. However, the Tramways Union still functioned largely as 3 separate unions in a federation. The exception to this was when Dunedin buses had a new owner move in. Auckland Secretary and National President Gary Froggett and Wellington and National Secretary Secretary Kevin O’Sullivan had to step in to help negotiations.

One issue the union faced was affiliation to the NZ union movements peak body The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU). The Auckland branch had remained affiliated to the NZCTU, but Wellington and Dunedin were not. Wellington had an affiliation to the Manufacturing and Construction Union whom it also shared an office with, which had several union affiliates many of which were also not in the NZCTU. After some discussion Wellington and Dunedin both decided to join Auckland and affiliate to the NZCTU. I ended up being the main person to represent the Tramways Union nationally at NZCTU meetings from 2009 through to 2012.

On the day to day, much of my time as union president was based on site. I still worked as a driver, though I was given reasonable amounts of time off to perform union tasks. Much of the work was on personal cases, many of which would end up being taken to mediation or some sort of hearing. Usually the dispute was over an interpretation of the Collective Agreement and how this impacted on drivers. Towards the end of my time as the union president the relationship with the company began to improve, and this helped resolve some of these interpretation conflicts.

Above: Go Wellington Drivers attend the Fairness @ Work Protest against Government changes to employment law, 20 October 2010. 

While I was quite able to do personal cases well, my preference was always to work on bigger picture projects. However occasionally there were some interesting personal cases. One that stood out was the driver caught having sex with a schoolteacher in the back of his bus outside a school at 9am in the morning. The CEO of the bus company was driving past, and saw a bus pulled over with a head popping up and down out the back windscreen. When the CEO walked in the bus to investigate the naked bus driver not recognising who had just got on his bus yelled “piss off I’m busy”. A similar case happened in Auckland where a driver was caught having sex in the bus, this driver got an oral warning for going off route.

In 2010 we had bargaining for all 3 major bus companies in Wellington. Two of them had the same owners so alignment was not too difficult, the third had the worse pay and conditions overall and was owned by a different company.

With NZ bus, who owned Go Wellington and Valley Flyer, there were some initial wobbles related to getting drivers released for bargaining which resulted in some minor industrial action. However, once we got to the table things improved. Zane Fulljames NZ Bus CEO opened negotiations by playing The Rolling Stone’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want on his phone. By the end of negotiations, we got a reasonable offer, with penalty rates put back into the Valley Flyer agreement (one of the conditions lost in the early 1990s) and various other improvements. By August 2010 drivers at Go Wellington and Valley Flyer had accepted the offer.

With Mana/Newlands coaches the negotiations were slightly more challenging. Competitive unionism is a major problem in the union movement internationally. A rival union had tried to set up at Go Wellington when I started there, but after a legal challenge and loss of members soon disappeared. At Valley Flyer the issue of competing unions had historically been a problem, but by 2010 the Tramways Union had the most members. At Mana however there had been a messy history of competitive unionism, and a management who were openly hostile. We had several cases of bullying and harassment at that company. Our main delegate on site was sacked and had to be reinstated by the Employment Relations Authority. Another driver recorded one of the managers openly telling her to quit the Tramways Union as she would be better off.

Entering negotiations, we tried to bring Mana into the NZ Bus talks as the latter company did have a small shareholding in the former. This soon proved non-productive. We held separate negotiations with Mana, which soon came to a standstill on issues of conditions, specifically penalty rates. We also were aware that the other union had previously been given more money (as were the non-union members) so determined not to accept a bad deal. Drivers at Kapiti Depot in Paraparaumu took a day’s industrial action during negotiations. Half the shifts were covered by non-union members from other sites. The local paper published a list of all services still running. Unfortunately for commuters the wrong list was published, and the cancelled services were those advertised, so many people were waiting for buses that never came.

Interview Nick did with Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) during the Mana/Newlands dispute in 2010

Eventually we got a deal with Mana. We improved the rate of pay and saw that there was no disadvantage with members of the other union or non-union members. However, it felt like we had swallowed a dead rat, as the overall package was poor compared with the other two bus companies. In the following bargaining round after I left Tramways, the membership increased and the pay and conditions improved modestly. However shortly after Mana/Newlands lost many of their service contracts with Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC).

It became clear that having one bus company paying better money and having better terms and conditions than its main competitors nationally would not be sustainable. Further, having half a dozen unions competing over the 30% of bus drivers who were unionised in New Zealand whilst ignoring the rest was foolish.

In 2011 the Wellington Tramways union started a campaign to focus on signing up new drivers to the Tramway Union, with a focus on companies where membership was weak. Kevin Atkin from the M&C Union and I began a three-month campaign to sign up new members at 3 bus companies, Runcimans, Mana/Newlands and National Coach Services (NCS). We were most successful at the first site signing up several drivers very quickly. We used to try and meet people outside of work as we found drivers were more comfortable talking openly about their workplace away from the bus depot. Mana/Newlands proved to be slow going as many of the drivers were reluctant to join for fear of repercussions from their employer. A common response was that they would join if others did, but few wanted to go first.

For NCS, Kevin and I met with the then NZCTU president Helen Kelly (no relation) who approved some funding to help us do recruitment work. Further we got some organisers from the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) the primary school teachers union, to help us run the recruitment campaign as they wanted to learn new ways to organise. Being a small company with a casual workforce this did not prove to be an easy task, but nonetheless we made some gains.

By the end of 2011, my term as President was nearing the end. I had always planned to go travelling after University. What I thought would be a one- or two-year stint on the buses had turned into five years. By that time, I was a regular in the New Zealand media representing public transport workers. I sat on the National Affiliates Council of the NZCTU, and at age 26 was the youngest person there at that time (other younger leaders came onboard later). Both Tramways and the M&C Union had talked to me about potentially moving onto other national leadership roles within their union.

My decision to leave was twofold. Firstly, for me I found the siloed nature of the Tramway branch structure limited. Whilst it often served local members very well to have a small local structure, I could see that to organise the five major bus operators in New Zealand a national strategy was needed. The level of cooperation between the transport unions was nowhere near adequate for this, and it was clear this would not be changing anytime soon, despite the best efforts of several us. The second reason was I could see for me, I could see professional development opportunities in working for one of the larger NZ unions.

Link: Media release when I finished as President of the Wellington Tramways Union 

It took some time to get my foot in the door at another union. Despite the best efforts of the NZCTU President and Secretary (both sadly now deceased) and others, I had to apply for about a dozen or so roles. Eventually in 2012 I got a role at the New Zealand Public Service Association where I was to spend the next five years of my career, again for a longer period than I’d previously planned.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

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