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MELBOURNE commuters are facing the prospect of tram and train strikes, with Yarra Trams and Metro Trains staff threatening to begin industrial action over pay and conditions.
Transport workers can now legally take industrial action under workplace laws if a majority agree, after agreements between staff and management at the city's train and tram companies expired on July 1.
Employees at both companies look likely to begin the process of taking industrial action this week, after failing to come to an agreement with management on new deals over pay and conditions.
Metro Trains last week succeeded in settling a new agreement with 3000 of its operations staff - including train drivers - that will see them get pay rises of about 13 per cent over the next three years.
But a remaining 700 maintenance and infrastructure staff, represented by three different unions, are at loggerheads with the rail operator, particularly over proposed night-time rostering.
The unions have warned the company that if a deal is not struck by 5pm today, Metro will face industrial action, including bans on some construction work, and on overtime.
The major issue between Metro Trains employees and management is night work: the operator wants more maintenance done at night, while staff want to keep the right to refuse big increases in overnight rostering.
Gerry Glover, an organiser for the Electrical Trades Union, which represents many of the maintenance workers, said Metro was ''viciously'' attacking the conditions many workers had secured long ago.
''Night shift can be awful to work,'' Mr Glover said, and many infrastructure employees had been there for decades. ''To be told you will have to do a fair bit of your final years on night shift is no good.''
But a spokeswoman for Metro, Geraldine Mitchell, said many planned future timetable changes could not be achieved with the current work arrangements.
And the proposed changes could still allow employees to ''maintain work/life balance'' while at the same time compensating them for more inconvenient shifts, she said. Also this week, staff at Yarra Trams are likely to begin the process of taking action against the company, after it asked many to work longer shifts for less pay - but with the option of a four-day week.
The union said this would lead to serious safety issues, with some drivers rostered on for more than 10 hours at a time, including driving for up to 5 hours without a break.
The Rail, Tram and Bus Union has given the company until Wednesday to make an offer acceptable to members, or it will begin the process of taking industrial action.
The union's state tram and bus division secretary, Phil Altieri, said negotiations with a tram operator in Melbourne had not broken down like this since Jeff Kennett was premier.
A Yarra Trams spokesman said extra bargaining sessions had been scheduled this week in a bid to avert industrial action. He said the company did not want to argue out the process in the media, but would attempt to settle the dispute this week.
The Baillieu government distanced itself from the negotiations yesterday, saying they were matters for the private operators. ''[But] the government is closely monitoring the outcomes,'' a government spokeswoman said.
This article first appeared on www.theage.com.au
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