Melbourne tramways: union vs management

The relations between management and staff of Melbourne’s tramway system, often fiery, has had a profound impact on its evolution, and has from time to time had a major impact on the general populace. This was evident from the earliest days of the cable tram system.

F.B. Clapp, the general manager of the MTOC, was a typical nineteenth-century Yankee capitalist. A strong believer in the unfettered rights of capital to run their businesses without consultation with organised labour, he was vehemently anti-union. Any attempt to form a union by employees of the MTOC was rewarded with instant dismissal of those concerned. This attitude was balanced with a genuine concern for his employees. When the 1890s depression hit the financial receipts of the MTOC, forcing a cost-slashing exercise, he reduced all employees’ wages by one-third. To show solidarity with his workforce, he also cut his own substantial salary by the same amount.

In addition, the enabling Act of the cable tramway system laid down some fairly advanced employment conditions for the day, including a standard eight-hour day.

However, Clapp’s beliefs stymied any attempt to form a tramways-based union until 1913, when a more tolerant environment grew under the aegis of the various municipal tramways trusts. This enabled the founding of the Australian Tramways Employees’ Association (from 1934 the Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association).

With the rise of the union, inevitably disputes would also arise. A key dispute occurred in 1920 between the union and the NMETL that lead to a High Court decision establishing a basic point of Australian industrial law [1], which is still quoted in many judgements today. The basis of the decision was that no wage increase arising out of the resolution of a dispute could be paid commencing from a date prior to that when the dispute first arose.

The first suggestion of the post-World War II struggle between the M&MTB and the union over one-man crewing appeared with the introduction of the Y1 class of tramcars in 1930. After the successful introduction of Peter Witt styled prototype Y 469 to service as a tourist car, the M&MTB determined that it wanted to experiment further with this basic design. It therefore ordered fourteen Y1 class tramcars (610-623) based on this requirement – however, largely due to union opposition as a result of the potential for one-man crews for these cars, only the first four were built. Components ordered for the cancelled ten cars were later used in the W3 and W4 class construction program.

The M&MTB did have a minor victory over the union in 1936 with the introduction of all-night cars. It managed to persuade the union that the only economic way to introduce this service (and introduce new employment opportunities) was to use one-man crews, and obtained a variation to the award on this issue. This service was to be run with modified single truck tramcars, having an average seating capacity of about 30. However, this award variation would have major implications in the one-man bus disputes of the 1950s.

However, most of the pre-WW II disputes were over pay and conditions – such as gaining greater entitlements to annual and sick leave, and reduction in working hours from 48 hours per week to 88 per fortnight, as well as access to penalty rates. The ATMOEA finally achieved a 40 hour working week in 1947 after years of struggle.

The appointment of R.J.H. Risson as Chairman of the M&MTB in 1949 set the scene for what would be the next 21 years – a very stormy industrial relations environment. Sir Robert, as he would later become, was a very much a product of his experience – the military. He was not a man given to compromise, instead believing that an order was an order, just as it was in the army – no matter what the impact on those concerned.

Major-General R.J.H. Risson. Photograph Australian Army Major-General R.J.H. Risson.
Photograph courtesy the Australian Army.

Risson’s primary objective was to run an effective, cost-efficient public transport system – and he was not prepared to let anything or anyone get in his way.

Against this appointment must be set the post-WW II industrial relations environment, consisting of general labour shortages due to the booming economy, the nature of the centralised compulsory arbitration system, and the radicalisation of the union movement (partly due to the receding memory of the Great Depression).

So the ATMOEA was determined to protect its members’ jobs, and improve working conditions. There was no way that bitter conflict was going to be avoided – and the big issue was over one-man crews.

But the first major stoush was to be over an ambit claim for a payrise of 20 shillings in February 1950, which resulted in a strike lasting 60 days. During the progress of the strike, the M&MTB successfully applied to the Arbitration Court to have the ATMOEA de-registered as a union. As part of the settlement of the dispute, the M&MTB did not oppose re-registration of the union – and the union did not get its pay increase.

The first rumblings of the one-man bus dispute appeared in 1952, when there was a strong push within the Executive of the ATMOEA to ban such operation, but it was narrowly defeated by a vote of members. But the dispute started to escalate in November 1953, when the M&MTB decided that it wanted to run 41 seat buses on the Clifton Hill-Point Ormond route as one-man buses. The ATMOEA refused to do so, and the bitter dispute bubbled on for many years, with the M&MTB constantly trying to achieve one-man operation of its 41 seat buses – and being refused by a combination of union refusal and the attitude of the Arbitration Court.

The dispute progressed to the stage that in 1959 when drivers previously employed on two man crews were scheduled to be trained to operate one-man buses, they absolutely refused to do so.

With the abandonment of all-night services in 1957, the use of one-man tram crews ceased. When buses replaced the local Footscray tram routes in March 1962, the union refused to operate the smaller one-man buses (31 seat). After a protracted court battle ranging across the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the High Court, the M&MTB got its way in May, when full operation of the Footscray routes with one-man buses commenced.

The clashes between the ATMOEA and the M&MTB continued – with the Board consistently trying to cut its running costs by converting bus routes from two-man to one-man operation, conciding with continued blackbans, strikes, and trips to both the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the High Court.

The failure of the M&MTB campaign with regard to one-man bus crews was to have an impact on M&MTB bus design, the truncated appearance of AEC Mark IV and VI buses being the direct result – due to court orders preventing one-man crewing of buses with more than 31 seats. As a result the Mark IV buses were very unpleasant to drive due to the unbalanced concentration of weight on the front axle, on occasions undergoing spins while braking downhill in wet weather. Fortunately the later Mark VI buses were much better balanced. Many of the M&MTB’s AEC Mark III buses were shortened and reduced in seating capacity to the magical 31 seat configuration, becoming known as ‘bobtails’, to enable use with one-man crews.

The suspicion of the ATMOEA against the M&MTB over one-man crewing led to the black-banning and withdrawal of the five Y and Y1 class tramcars from passenger service in 1965. The reason behind this was their ‘Peter Witt’ layout, which was particularly suited to one-man operation – this suspicion was also to influence the design of the Z class tramcars introduced in 1975. Four years after the 1965 black-banning, the W3 and W4 class tramcars were also black-banned due to their relatively poor braking characteristics compared to other W type cars.

Relations were so poisonous between the M&MTB and the ATMOEA that when in March 1968 a traffic inspector was transferred from Malvern Depot, employees refused to operate services until it was discovered that the inspector concerned had been transferred at his own request.

The culmination of the Risson period occurred on 15 May 1969 – the jailing of Clarrie O’Shea (Victorian Secretary of the ATMOEA) by Justice Kerr [2] of the Commonwealth Industrial Court for contempt over the failure to answer summonses and pay fines totalling $8,100.

This sentencing resulted in national general strike action in a wide range of industries. There were a number of marches in many state capitals, often culminating in violent clashes between strikers and police. The level of public unrest caused anxiety on behalf of both Federal and State Governments, but they could not be seen to back down. This logjam was only broken by the action of Dudley MacDougall, a former advertising manager for the Australian Financial Review, who paid the outstanding fines acting on behalf of an anonymous public benefactor said to have won the NSW State Lottery. Clarrie O’Shea was released from Pentridge Prison on 21 May 1969.

The jailing of Clarrie O’Shea was the last use of the penal sections of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act [3], although these provisions have never been repealed. In order to prevent similar mass action over industrial issues, the Fraser government introduced sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act in 1977, which outlaw secondary boycotts within Australia – the very mechanism used to place pressure on the government of the day in the O’Shea case. These secondary boycott provisions remain in force to this day, but the public outrage generated by the jailing of Clarrie O’Shea has prevented similar court action as a result of breaches of industrial law by union officials.

After the departure of Risson from his position as Chairman of the M&MTB, much of the heat went out of the relationship between the ATMOEA and the Board, with the occasional skirmish over pay and rosters during the 1970s. Indeed, relations at the workshops with members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) became much more problematic.

In 1982 the Cain Labor ministry achieved office, and one of its first major initiatives was to amalgamate the M&MTB with the suburban electric railways, as the MTA. However, this brought the tramway system under much more political control of the State government of the day, removing any illusion of independence enjoyed by the former M&MTB.

The late 1980s saw severe financial pressure on the State government as a result of the general economic downturn. Despite the Cain ministry’s alignment with the union movement, it decided that one of the cost-cutting measures was to remove conductors from trams. Therefore, it rushed into service a poorly conceived ticketing system based on scratch tickets sold from a variety of retail outlets. It also started modifying trams for driver-only operation, and hiring conductors on short-term contracts. Conductors were to start being taken off trams as from 1 January 1990.

Naturally enough the ATMOEA opposed this initiative, so it decided that it would undertake dramatic action. On 1 January 1990 Met management introduced a staff signoff procedure at end of shift, requiring staff to sign a form that stated among other things: You are required to sign that you have worked, during your shift, as instructed.

Clearly no consideration was given to the reaction that staff would have regarding this requirement. On that day, staff members refused to follow management directions and operated the tram system by themselves, with conductors. Management decided to effectively lock out staff by turning off the traction power that evening, but the union got wind of this before it could be implemented. It started running out trams from depots and parking them in the centre of the CBD as a very visible blockade, where they remained for the next 33 days until the State government buckled under the pressure.

The Cain ministry was shown to be weak and subject to union pressure, losing the confidence of the electorate. John Cain was irretrievably wounded as Premier, being replaced shortly afterwards by Victoria’s first female Premier, Joan Kirner, with the Transport Minister (Jim Kennan) also falling from grace. However, nothing was to save the State Labor government, which was swept away by a landslide at the next election, thanks to the Met scratch ticket dispute, the collapse of Tricontinental and Pyramid, and the sale of the State Bank of Victoria.

The coming to power of the Kennett Liberal State Government changed the political and industrial climate beyond all recognition. Unlike previous Liberal governments, this ministry could be characterised as a radical conservative government, with a level of determination to carry out its policies and agenda, in spite of any and all opposition, that had not been seen before.

Part of this agenda was to cut public transport costs and introduce one-man crews on trams, and show up the previous Labor administration over its failure during the Met scratch ticket dispute. It therefore signed a contract with OneLink in 1995 to produce an automated ticketing system for all public transport modes, and provide the ability to have driver-only tram operation.

The PTU (as the ATMOEA had become) was opposed to this initiative. However, it made a dramatic political miscalculation when the tram workers went out on strike during the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. Premier Jeff Kennett was furious, seeing it as a major betrayal and an act of bastardry, and was determined to take revenge.

One month after the Grand Prix strike, the Transport Minister (Robin Cooper) announced the forthcoming privatisation of the PTC – a direct result of the industrial action. In this decision were sown some of the seeds of the problems with the OneLink-developed Met Ticket system, which was designed for operation with a single operator, not a privatised system broken up between a number of operators.

The announcement of the privatised system was the final death knell of two-man crews, and the onset of the operators Yarra Trams and M>Tram has drastically reduced the level of industrial disputes on the Melbourne Tramway system – leading to a climate similar to that ruling the cable trams under the MTOC at the birth of Melbourne’s tramway system.

The industrial action over the Met scratch ticket dispute and the Grand Prix strike was essentially counterproductive for the union, the first resulting in the shattering of the union-friendly Cain government and its replacement by the Kennett ministry, and the second in introducing an environment where the union lost almost all its influence over the direction of the Melbourne tramway system.

Ultimately, the conflict between the M&MTB and the ATMOEA over one-man crews during the Risson era was to be a significant factor in the retention of Melbourne’s trams. The resistance against one-man crews on buses with more than 31 seats removed much of the economic benefits of a switch from trams to buses, due to the far greater passenger carrying capability of the standard Melbourne W class tramcar over a 31-seater omnibus. The projected staff and capital savings would just not be achieved by abandonment of the tramway system.

And whatever happened to two-man buses? There are none – all buses in service in Melbourne today are operated by one-man crews, no matter what their seating capacity. From this brief discussion it can be seen that the industrial relations history of the Melbourne tramway system has had an immense influence on the development and retention of the Melbourne tramway system.


  • Cross, N., Budd, D., and Wilson, R. (1993) Destination City (Fifth Edition), Transit Australia Publishing
  • Curlewis, D (1991) Melbourne Tramways Dispute and Lockout, Rebel Worker Vol 10 No 2 (79) March 1991
  • Keating, J. (1970) Mind the Curve! Melbourne University Press
  • Masters, C. (1998) On the Right Track? Four Corners TV program transcript, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
  • M&MTB Annual Reports
  • Pearsall, R. (1992) History of the ATMOEA, Rail, Tram & Bus Union NSW
  • Vassilopoulos, J. Lessons of the “Free Clarrie O’Shea” campaign, Green Left Weekly


[1] Crown v. The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration and The Australian Tramway Employees’ Association; ex parte North Melbourne Electric Tramways and Lighting Company Limited (1920).

[2] Sir John Robert Kerr KCMG, L.St.J., PC, AK, GCMG, GCVO Governor-General of Australia 1974-77 – notorious for the dismissal of the Whitlam Federal Government on 11 November 1975.

[3] Enacted by the Chifley Labor government in 1947.