The Rail, Tram and Bus Union has a proud and fighting history stretching back over a hundred years. Together, workers in public transport have grown stronger and fought for fairness in their lives.
Melbourne was one of the earliest settlements in colonial Australia to develop a sweeping transport infrastructure to move people and freight. Australia’s first steam train opened in Melbourne in 1854 and the city’s first electric cable tram opened in 1884.
By the early 20th century, Victoria’s tramways and railways, connecting town and countryside and transporting freight, goods and people, were hundreds of kilometres and thousands of workers strong. These rail and tram workers ran a system like no other which they knew simply could not run without their hands, brains and skills. But they faced harsh discipline, long hours often far away from their families and meager wages from their bosses and the Victorian government who employed them.
Public transport workers soon grasped it was urgent to organise and bargain together in union. Rail and tram workers originally organised in separate craft unions based on their very specific job, grade and skills. The drive for one united union made a step forward in 1911, when Victorian rail workers came together to form the Victorian Railways Union, the first united, all-grades industry rail union in Australia.
By the 1920s, public transport workers were organised in 3 main unions: the Australian Railways Union (ARU), the Australian Tramways & Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association (ATMOEA), and the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen (AFULE).
By the 1990s, public transport workers had weathered the ordeals of privatisation and intense attacks on their jobs and industries from conservative governments and employers. Their unions recognised the need for unity in one single union.
In 1993, these unions formed the Public Transport Union, which in 1998 renamed itself the Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union. The RTBU’s mission to fight for public transport workers’ dignity and a fair deal at work and uphold the world-class public transport for all people continues.