The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) is opposing the New South Wales government’s moves to fully privatise Sydney’s buses saying it will hurt commuters and transport workers.
RTBU Tram and Bus Division secretary David Babineau described the governments’ announcement on May 14 as “an outrageous attack on frontline workers and commuters” and said the union would fight to protect both.
“Privatising our bus services is a terrible idea at the best of times. To do it under the cover of the current global pandemic is disgraceful”, he said.
The NSW government said last October it would open up all 13 of Sydney’s metropolitan bus contracts to competitive tender over three years. Under cover of COVID-19, it announced it was pushing ahead with the full privatisation of Sydney’s buses, including the three remaining state-run regions of 7, 8 and 9 in the Northern Beaches, Eastern Suburbs and Ryde/Willoughby areas.
It has already contracted out bus operations in the city’s inner west and in Newcastle, which in both places, has led to poorer and less reliable services and less bus stops. It has also led to job cuts and regressive work conditions for the 3000 front-line State Transit Authority staff.
Babineau noted the irony of the premier and transport minister’s praising of frontline workers, including bus drivers, under the COVID-19 crisis while taking steps to “attack their jobs”.
“These workers have been putting themselves and their families in harm’s way to keep Sydney moving.
“The NSW government will attempt to spin this, by using words like ‘franchising’ and claiming that measures have been put in place to protect jobs. That’s absolute rubbish.
“Jobs are at risk and services will be cut. We’ve seen it in the inner-west and in Newcastle where this government has already pushed through its unpopular and unsuccessful privatisation plans,” Babineau said.
Despite transport minister Andrew Constance’s promises before and after last year’s election that the government’s “franchising model” for the buses would not involve selling off government-owned buses, this is untrue.
Department of transport officials revealed at a May 12 Budget Estimates parliamentary committee that they are investigating various options, including selling off bus stock. “It’s not necessarily that buses will be owned [by the government] one way or the other,” one transport department spokesperson told the committee on March 11.
Greens NSW transport spokesperson Abigail Boyd, a chair of the Legislative Council Transport and Infrastructure Committee, said on March 12: “It seems the government is scrambling to hide the fact they have no plans to continue to own Sydney’s buses. But the truth is coming out.”
Boyd said that Constance told budget estimates last year that the government’s “franchising” model would mean that buses and depots would stay in public hands and that it was “not privatisation”.
“I know you do not understand the subtle differences of this but if the buses and the depots still belong to the community they are not being sold off. They are actually not being privatised; they still remain in public hands,” Constance said on October 28.
“Today we heard directly from transport bureaucrats that they are considering contracts where current publicly-owned buses are replaced with privately-owned ones,” Boyd said.
The Greens want the government to rule out NSW buses ever being owned by private operators. The Greens, NSW Labor and the NSW Shooters, Fishers and Farmers are supporting the RTBU’s campaign urging MPs to sign a pledge committing to support and defend public transport in NSW by: “Keeping our buses public, holding private operators to account, and supporting and campaigning for a publicly owned mass-transit system”.
The Our Transport campaign is calling on the public to help ramp up pressure on MPs to make a public commitment to “preserving essential public services like transport”.
Meanwhile, bus drivers are demanding better health and safety regulations while the pandemic continues. The union said that drivers have received mixed messages from the NSW government including that they must accept all passengers and that only 12 people will be allowed on a bus and 32 in a train carriage.
Babineau told The Guardian on May 19 that “nothing is off the table when it comes to the safety of drivers”. He also said that drivers had been calling for masks, and received none. “There needs to be a huge public campaign about the new rules here. The union needs to bypass the government entirely and appeal to passengers directly.”
The NSW government, which wants the state to snap back, has told commuters that they should avoid travelling at peak hour, a difficult if not impossible request for many. It has not said anything about commissioning more buses and trains to allow for social distancing to happen and to protect the health of public transport workers.
[Visit ourtransport.org.au for more information and to support the campaign.]