The Combined Rail Unions in NSW are recommending industrial action to force the NSW Rail Corporation (Railcorp) to back away from plans to cut 400 jobs on stations, along with rail workers' conditions of work.
The decision comes after some 40 meetings with management on a new enterprise agreement reached an impasse. Negotiations began in August last year. Effectively Railcorp wants to push ahead with its plan, which amounts to a creeping privatisation of the state's rail system.
Management wants to reduce sick leave, scrap public holiday and annual leave accruals and eliminate meal allowances. It is offering a wage rise of 4-8% over one or two years, but only if the unions accept further losses in conditions.
Railcorp also wants to remove the industry standard on maintaining wages and, if the unions don't concede, will refuse to consider back pay after the agreement is signed.
The April 28 Sydney Telegraph attacked its latest proposal for "creating lengthy delays on the already beleaguered train network". Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) president Nick Lewocki was quoted as saying "This is just a cost-cutting exercise for the sake of it. Railcorp management is intimidated by [NSW Treasurer] Michael Costa and Treasury and they have no idea how to make productivity gains other than to cut jobs".
A major part of Railcorp's problems arises from another bungle — the cancellation of the automatic ticketing system Tcard, which will cost taxpayers more than $50 million unless costs can be recouped from the firm contracted to install the failed system.
Tcard was to pave the way for the job cuts for which Railcorp now has no justification. Its proposed running down of the network will take place at the very time oil price rises and inflation are leading to increased rail patronage.
The Tcard was also a failure of the Iemma government's privatisation agenda, with the government currently tied up in a court case over the affair.
Long ticket queues on Sydney rail stations can also be attributed to this creeping privatisation. The ticket machines on stations are filled with change by a private company, which causes long lines at ticket windows when the machines (often) run out of money, especially at peak hours.
Railworkers have come up with some creative responses to this massive mismanagement. For example, on the Central Coast unionists have initiated a very effective safety campaign to build public awareness and opposition to the proposed cuts. Rostered-off RTBU members have turned up to work and distributed leaflets criticising Railcorp for not providing enough staff.
In this way, with sympathetic local radio and newspapers, public support for the rail workers' campaign is building.
[John Coleman is a RTBU workplace representative at Sydney Central Station.]