New president: RTBU ‘could be a powerful union again’

March 19, 2011

In a significant break through, a rank-and-file ticket — Members Voice (MV) — won the presidency in the NSW Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) elections in February.

Members Voice stood on a clear platform of opposition to privatisation. This was the first challenge to the ALP-controlled leadership since the 1980s.

Green Left Weekly’s John Coleman spoke to incoming president Tony Clear about his vision for the union.

Why did you decide to run in the elections?

I stood for the position so I could get what I wanted to say heard. I’ve only been in the railways for a bit over three years and I’ve never held a union position or held a political party membership in my life, so it is a bit of a shock when you are in a position that can influence the argument. I’m going to do my best to not disappoint the members.

I wasn’t happy with the unions in general. At an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) meeting, I asked the question: “When is the union movement going to stop being the fundraising arm of the Labor Party?”

That was one problem I wanted to address.

Also, the RBTU signed up to an EBA that was inadequate and it has signed a four-year agreement, which I think is too long and locks us in. Nobody can predict four years into the future.

The reasoning [of the incumbent leadership] was that the [next state] election was going to be in four years time and, expecting the Liberals would win [this time around in the March 26 NSW state elections], it would give them good timing to get tough with the Liberals in their negotiations

I just happen to think that you should negotiate tough all the time for your members.

Also, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, just before our union election, said that Unions NSW had endorsed the plan to sell off the electricity retailers in NSW.

Nobody asked me if I wanted to endorse that, and I think that our union being part of Unions NSW had no right to endorse this. It seemed to me they were backing bad decisions that the government was making.

The things that have been going on in the NSW railways prompted me to a point where I wanted to stand up. So I ran on those two issues.

I think the president’s role is to champion the members. At the end of the day it’s the members who vote on the agenda and I just want to make sure that process happens.

What are your views on privatisation and on the Unions NSW Better Services Campaign?

I’m absolutely against the privatisation of public assets. There will be a point where the only thing we will own is the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and they will probably put a price on that. People before us left them to us and we should be leaving more to the people after us, rather than less.

In terms of producing better services, I would like to see a situation where the unions are proactive in management.

Recently a Railcorp manager asked everybody to submit ideas to make the place better. People have done that before and they have ended up jaded and the ideas have gone nowhere, but I honestly believe it’s the duty of the unions to take up those ideas.

Our members should be challenging management to be better managers from the grassroots — not management bossing us around telling us how we should be doing our job — our members are the ones that do the work.

Everyone has a story of waste and stupidity but none of it has been documented properly and its time we started doing that, to put the management on their toes about how they operate, which in the end gives the public a much better service.

Do you think there is a significant difference between Work Choices and the Fair Work Australia industrial relations laws?

It appears to me that working people in this country have been let down by the Labor Party; the changes have not gone far enough. There were a lot of changes that Labor said they were going to make. But we are still waiting and now the stalling tactics are at play.

What is your opinion of the Liberal and Labor parties past record on dealing with public transport and their lack of action on a comprehensive plan?

In general, both sides of politics have failed to deliver over the last 15 years. Signing contracts and having the NSW government renege on them and pay companies out has almost become an industry!

The [rail] project from Epping to Parramatta should have been completed. Now it is being dragged out as something that might happen if the right party is elected. In every election there is a very fast train that is going to go somewhere but never eventuates.

What are your views on the links between addressing climate change and expanded and better funded public transport?

The more people you get out of cars the better the environment is going to be, the better the air is and that’s directly related to better infrastructure, better public services, better public transport.

I think the state would be better off in the future with a long-term [public transport] budget that stays in place regardless of election results. The environmental impact can only be good.

Do you have any concluding remarks?

One of the objectives of the union is to present political representation to its members or for its members. For example, we should be asking our members what they think about privatisation for example or flood levies or anything in particular.

NSW Liberals leader Barry O’Farrell has mooted an idea that a petition with 10,000 signatures will be tabled in parliament.

Our union in NSW has 17,000 members, by managing those members and offering quick communication on issues our union could be quite powerful again.

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