Newcastle bus drivers angry over deal


By Steve Painter

SYDNEY — A blazing row has erupted between Sydney and Newcastle officials of the bus workers' union (ATMOEA) over a deal struck by Sydney officials with the Department of Transport. The deal was accepted by a majority at a June 22 stop-work meeting in Sydney, but only after fiery clashes in which the sound was turned off and the microphone snatched from a Newcastle official, and other Newcastle speakers were subjected to apparently organised abuse, heckling and disruption from a small group.

About a third of the 1000-strong meeting opposed the deal. Newcastle official Fay Hitchcock says a motion of no-confidence in the state executive was carried, but ruled lost due to "creative chairmanship" just before the meeting was hastily closed.

Later, another Newcastle official, Dave Winwood, claimed to have been locked out of the union's Sydney office. By week's end he was admitted to the office, but on restricted terms.

The Sydney deal sacrifices about 200 jobs in return for a "guarantee" that the Sydney bus system will not be privatised. It also accepts longer shifts and dramatic changes to rosters.

A Newcastle official says the Sydney workers were paid for the stop-work as part of a deal concluded in the days before the meeting. ATMOEA state secretary Ron Pearsall urged workers to accept the deal and "live to fight another day", because it was the best that could be had in a time of recession.

After the meeting, Sydney officials and representatives of the Department of Transport hurried to Melbourne, apparently to rush a series of award changes through the federal Arbitration Commission. The Newcastle branch was not informed of the detail of these changes, and was denied funds to intervene in the commission proceedings.

The Newcastle workers suspect that the government has hit them with a harsher package because it doesn't want an agreement, but instead wants to privatise their network. Last November, NSW transport minister Bruce Baird demanded that Newcastle drivers accept pay and conditions applying in private bus companies or face privatisation.

Newcastle mass meetings have rejected the department's demands and come back with a counterproposal, which the department in turn has rejected. The department says the door is still open for a deal in Newcastle, but the union says there is no sign it is prepared to negotiate seriously.

The department has received 12 expressions of interest in taking over the Newcastle network, but there are rumours that a large company is eyeing off the private bus system in Wollongong and the state th a longer-term view to grabbing the most profitable sections of the Sydney system.

Fay Hitchcock says the Newcastle drivers feel "totally betrayed" not by the Sydney workers, but by the Sydney officials who have made a deal that all NSW bus workers will come to regret.