Fair Work Commission forces rail union to suspend strike

Central Station on a normal work day. Photo: Nicholas Eagar

Even though the NSW government convinced Fair Work deputy commissioner, Jonathan Hamberger on January 25 that the Rail Tram and Bus Union’s (RBTU) overtime ban and proposed 24-hour strike should be suspended, Sydney’s hard-pressed commuters continue to support railway workers’ demand for an agreement that does not mean drivers have to work overtime to take home a fair wage.

Railway workers want a wage rise of 6% a year over the next four years to bring them in line with wages for drivers in other states.

By contrast, the rail bosses received an average wage rise of 9% last year, with Sydney Trains’ top four receiving more than $40,000 extra in pay (from $453,212 in 2015–16 to $495,605 in 2016–17) — well above the state government’s 2.5% cap for public servants.

The drivers also want a range of conditions to be a part of their new agreement including the right to free bus travel, not being penalised before a wrongdoing is proved and not cutting various other workplace protections now in place.

Unionists told Green Left Weekly fatigue and work/life balance are major issues, especially with the new timetable. Staff cuts over the past few years mean the current unstable system relies on rail workers working regular overtime.

The union has been trying to negotiate a new agreement on conditions and pay for more than six months. RTBU state secretary Alex Claassens said the union has been trying to talk to management and the government about the unravelling situation for years. The union has not taken industrial action since 1999.

“We have been more than willing to talk,” Claassens said, adding that the union has been asking management and the government to help solve the problems.

One of those problems is the new rail timetable, which was introduced late last year. It included a lot more services but without the requisite number of drivers. The government did not have a plan, expecting that the same number of drivers would simply take on more overtime to compensate.

Claassens said: "Anybody that runs a business knows you can't continually run it on overtime, and if we're running a railway that requires people to work overtime, we've got real problem."

Meanwhile, transport minister Andrew Constance is sounding more ridiculous each day.

A privatisation fanatic, Constance declared last year that by 2019 Sydney’s trains would be privatised and driverless. “I have a very clear view ... that, into the future, government will no longer be providing services when it comes to transport — there's no need ... We know that the private sector can deliver transport very effectively.”

Recently, Constance observed that trains were for people who do not own cars — an argument that reveals just how out of touch he is.

Experts say Sydney’s train system has had a 20% patronage growth in the past 12 months. David Hensher of the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney makes the point that even a small shift away from cars can mean a big increase in patronage for public transport and, if the planning is not there, chaos ensues.

The RTBU asked more than 6100 members via text message whether they wanted to accept the latest government offer, which included a wage rise of 2.75% a year and a $1000 bribe to call off the strike. Only 5.93% of union members — about 360 workers —voted to accept the offer.

“That offer was insulting, especially the bribe”, one unionist told GLW. Union members said that even while the staff cuts have meant that a lot of the older blokes who were staunch unionists have gone, younger workers are “still very union minded, as a matter of course”.

Claassens said that while rail workers will postpone the overtime ban and 24-hour stoppage for six weeks, as ordered by the Fair Work Commission, it was disappointing the government let it get to this point.

“Commuters and workers deserve a quick resolution to this,” he said. “The transport minister can deliver that simply by coming to the table with a reasonable offer.

“Workers don’t want to be in this position. We just want to get back to doing what we do best — keeping our trains moving — but we can’t sit back and let our transport services and wages and conditions continue to be attacked.

“The transport minister has squeezed our transport system to the point where it is reliant on workers doing overtime simply to keep a normal timetable running.

“It beggars belief that a Transport Minister can run a rail system into the ground so much that normal services can’t continue if workers refuse to work overtime.”

Constance is wrong when he says “commuters are only interested in getting home on time”. Commuters are interested in a greatly expanded public transport system — which would mean more, not fewer, jobs.

They are also interested in getting home safely — and that means good conditions for all rail workers.

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