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

My first year or so on the Wellington buses I was just learning the ropes. Firstly I had to learn all the bus routes. Then I had to remember to stop and pick up passengers. Thirdly I had to relax driving something the size of a small building around the narrow hilly streets of Wellington – many of which are narrow in the car.

Unionism played a prominent role in the life of the bus depot. As mentioned in my previous post, at the time I started there were two unions (one brought in by the company) trying to sign up new drivers. Our first couple of weeks training were held away from the bus depot. Our trainer was clear when asked about the union situation – “don’t join the tramways union, filthy Phil is no good.” Filthy Phil was the long serving secretary of the Tramways Union. He was well known for wearing shorts and jandals all year around. He’d been the secretary at the time of the bus company being privatised, where the union had against the odds held on to penalty rates and other conditions of employment. Not surprisingly, he made a few enemies within the bus company.

My first involvement with the Tramways Union was giving evidence in the Employment Relations Authority that during training the company had promoted one union over the other. The Filthy Phil quote was included in my evidence. The Tramways Union eventually won the case and the other union were no longer on site.

My first drivers stop work union meeting was an eye opener. It had been some years since the Tramways Union had held full branch elections, and a number of drivers were irate. Further drivers were very angry about the company trying to attack penal rates. Phil attempted to run this meeting amid constant heckling, in particular from one vocal driver called Josie Bullock who seemed to have a real axe to grind with the union. The purpose of this meeting was to approve claims for the next bargaining round. At the end of the meeting they were nominating members of the bargaining team. I hadn’t really thought about it, but before I knew it one of the drivers had nominated me. So a few months after starting I was representing drivers at negotiations.

The first bargaining meeting was interesting. The company presented their claims, which from a driver’s point of view looked like the script of a bad horror movie, where conditions were slashed and where the company would shift the balance of power firmly to the employer and a long way away from the drivers. Examples of this were the reports, complaints and enquiries procedure in the collective. The existing clause had a robust process for investigating complaints which incorporated the principles of natural justice. The company proposed to replace this with wording that would have made it much easier to sack bus drivers on flimsy complaints. As a negotiating team we worked hard to stop that. We also tabled our own claims, which included a significant increase to all printed pay rates in the agreement. By the end of the meeting it was clear we were miles apart.

At the start of the next negotiations, the union decided to meet a few hours beforehand to plan our response. Phil was half an hour late. We tried to call him but he wasn’t there. Kevin O’ Sullivan the union president and Graeme Clarke from the Manufacturing and Construction Union (who was advocate for the workshop workers) went around to Phil’s house. When they got there they discovered he had died.

Phil’s funeral in June 2008 was well attended, and buses in the city stopped for hours. Phil had played a massive role in the Wellington Tramways Union, and there was concern about what would happen to it now he was gone.

Negotiations continued, and we as a bargaining team made some progress on getting the company to moderate their position. However getting movement on pay increases was slow. Mediation services got involved with the hope of bringing us together. However we felt it was likely that industrial action would follow.

At first I hadn’t seriously considered running for the union executive. Kevin O’Sullivan the president had become acting secretary and was considered the front runner for the role. Former union president Morris Dawson had joined us on the bargaining team, but he didn’t want to be more than a site delegate at that time. Chris Morley was considering running, but was more interested in the Vice President role. Kevin O’Sullivan asked if I’d consider running, and my initial response was that I was too junior. But I thought about it. I then remembered that my old adversary from the Labour Party, Paul Tolich, had once been the Tramways Union President. Shortly afterwards I decided to run.

Karori Depot bus driver and friend Alan St John. After the 2008 Tramways Union elections Alan joked “Chris Morley, Kevin O’Sullivan and Nick Kelly, the bloody Irish Catholics have taken over the union

Page 7 of this Rail and Maritime Union newsletter reports on the Tramways Union election and looming industrial dispute at Go Wellington.

I was elected by a fairly sizeable majority, as were Chris and Kevin. The negotiations were progressing, but we still hadn’t lifted the pay offer to an amount that drivers would accept. My first few weeks as Union President were about to become very busy.

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

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