Rail workers' militancy against Morris Iemma's NSW Labor government has won some important concessions and forced the government onto the back foot.
An enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) with NSW Rail Corporation (Railcorp) had been in dispute for months. After some 40 meetings, the deadlock was only resolved when an industrial court-approved ballot resulted in 95% of union members voting for industrial action.
The Rail, Tram and Bus Union announced it would take industrial action on July 17, during the pope's visit. Predictably, the Sydney Daily Telegraph went on the attack against the union, running a front-page caricature of RBTU secretary Nick Lewocki, complete with horns and a pitchfork under the headline "Devil's work".
However, on its website, Telegraph readers' emails were overwhelmingly in support of the rail workers. There is broad public sympathy for government sector workers, who have been told by the Iemma-Costa leadership that a 2.5% pay rise would be the limit.
The Iemma government is hugely unpopular, a result of its attacks on public sector workers, its determination to sell off electricity and its failure to invest in public transport. A June Newspoll revealed its primary vote has sunk to 28%. The poll also revealed that Liberal opposition leader Barry O'Farrell had overtaken Iemma as preferred premier by 39% to Iemma's 32%.
Railcorp had wanted to reduce sick leave, scrap public holiday and annual leave accruals and eliminate meal allowances. It was prepared to offer a wage rise of 4-8% over one or two years, but only if the union accepted further losses in conditions.
Following the union's threat to take strike action during World Youth Day — when thousands of pilgrims are expected to be in Sydney for the pope's visit — the government was forced to drop its threat to use emergency powers to force the RBTU back to work; scrap its plan to cut 400 jobs; make a pay offer (the detail of which is still to be negotiated but the union want 5% per year) and concede back pay (which had been held up during the EBA negotiations). The union states in a July 11 bulletin that it "will not agree to any final position until it has been voted on by members".
While the RBTU has managed to negotiate an agreement with real gains for workers, more needs to be done to maintain and extend the fight against the government's deliberate run-down of the rail system, with more than 1000 other jobs threatened by the government-appointed Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal.
The travelling public has us to thank for protecting 400 jobs. Our solid support for action indicates the way forward in thwarting further attacks on rail workers' pay and conditions.
[John Coleman is an RTBU workplace representative at Sydney Central Station.]