As the NSW Coalition government continues to lurch between a growing number of transport-related crises, a number of pro-public transport groups and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) are busy organising a “Fix NSW Transport” rally on February 17 in Sydney’s CBD.
The rally is a bold attempt to unite many transport-related campaigns across NSW and ensure that public transport remains a major election issue.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian has showed no interest in changing course from Mike Baird’s $17 billion WestConnex toll road scam. She has announced two further large-scale projects: the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches toll road to the north of Sydney and the F6 to the south.
Almost immediately, opposition groups sprung up in these areas. People driving from the west on the M4 were suddenly hit with a $4.56 toll to drive on a previously free public road. Protests at MP Stuart Ayres’ office in Penrith soon followed.
Towards the end of the year, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced a new train timetable, which included many new services but without allocating an extra 150 drivers to make it work. Delays started to cascade, and resulted in a major system meltdown on January 9. Overcrowding resulted in passengers being turned back from Central and Wynyard platforms due to safety concerns. Support for the government dropped further in the polls.
Adding fuel to this fire is the ongoing enterprise bargaining negotiations between the RTBU and Sydney Trains. After years of public sector wage rises being limited to 2.5% per annum, NSW train workers are asking for changes to their work conditions, especially rostering, and a pay rise that would bring them into parity with other states.
Currently, the rostering requires drivers to work 12 in every 14 days. In some cases, a driver’s workload can exceed Rail Safety Act limits. On January 25, a day before the RTBU-called stop work, the NSW government asked the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to have the strike suspended on the grounds that it threatened to “endanger the welfare” of the population.
The argument was first advanced a few days earlier by Harmers Workplace Lawyers, who claimed that they would be directly impacted as the majority of their workers used trains to get to work. The law firm had previously represented James Ashby, now chief of staff for Pauline Hanson.
FWC senior deputy president Jonathan Hamberger, a former staffer of the notoriously anti-union MP Peter Reith, ruled in the government's favour and suspended the strike for 6 weeks.
Australian Council of Trade Union secretary Sally McManus condemned the FWC decision saying: “Rail workers followed every single rule and law, and still the Minister of the day can get an order to cancel bans on working excessive overtime. The basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead.”
University of Sydney Law Professor Shae McCrystal described the decision as a “huge lowering of the bar”. RTBU state secretary Alex Claassens agreed and said the decision had weakened the workers’ bargaining position. If the government does not come back with a better offer, the strike could be back on after the suspension ends on March 8.
The NSW government’s credibility slipped another notch last week with the revelation that Constance lied over his naming of a ferry “Ferry McFerryface”. Constance claimed it was based on a people’s vote, which cost $100,000. It turns out the name was a captain’s pick, and still Berejiklian defends her minister.
The RTBU is among the 22 organisations endorsing the rally, and Claassens is one of the speakers. “The system is broken. It’s important for people to come together and make the politicians take notice,” he said.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, a fierce critic of WestConnex, will also speak. “With the government committed to a [$2 billion] knock-down rebuild of the NSW sports stadiums, it’s time to seriously question their priorities,” Moore said. Other speakers will include campaigners from all across Sydney. Performers include Ecopella, the Riff Raff Radical Marching Band and Mark Lucas.
The rally will start at Archibald Fountain, Hyde Park North at 2pm on February 17 and march to the Martin Place amphitheatre for speeches and performances. A banner and placard-making workshop will be held at the Addison Road Community Centre, Marrickville on February 10.
[Andrew Chuter is the convenor of No WestConnex: Public Transport not Motorways. For more information visit FixNSWTransport.]