The little union that could: a retrospective look at the Sydney train debacle
On the 21st of February 2022, Sydney fell into chaos as commuters' plans were derailed when the train network halted to a stop. In the days following the stoppage, Sydneysiders heard a variety of conflicting recounts of the event; that it was a workers strike or that it wasn't a workers strike, that there were safety concerns or that the tracks had been flooded.
Weeks after, there is still a lot of confusion about the reasoning for the action undertaken by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU). Written here is a simplified account of why the trains stopped that day and the ensuing response.
What does the rails, tram and bus union want?
In May last year, the Enterprise Agreement concerning Sydney rail workers expired. After dozens of meetings between the union and the NSW Government, a new agreement is still yet to be struck. The Enterprise Agreement covered more that 10,000 staff. Without it, rail employees are living in a limbo of working conditions. Further complexities arise from the fact that the RTBU is bargaining for new privatisation, wage, and safety measures that the NSW Government is, so far, refusing to agree to.
1. JOB SECURITY IN THE FACE OF PRIVATISATION
In 2017, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced that he would contract at least 59 Inner West bus services to private investors. The serving secretary of the RTBU, Chris Preston, warned the Government about putting profits before the public.
“To make money, they’ll slash services and cut back on maintenance. We’ve seen it happen before. Less popular, less profitable bus routes get the chop and commuters are left stranded.”
In 2018, Inner West buses were signed away to private company Transit Systems and, just as Preston predicted, many reliable bus stops in the Concord and Newcastle areas were cut.
In 2019, Transport NSW introduced the Sydney Metro Northwest Line. When asked about the possibility of selling the project to private investors, Premier Gladys Berejiklian assured the Australian public that the project would be entirely funded by the Federal Government. However, moments after making this claim, Berejiklian was eerily vague about whether assets would be sold off in order to finance the Metro.
"We would benefit from the ability to bring things forward if we have extra funding," the Premier told reporters.
With various other segments of NSW Transport already being sold off, the fear of further privatisation constantly looms over transport workers. One of the key ways private transport companies minimise costs is by severely cutting workers’ wages. According to the Transport NSW Blog, "The average private sector bus driver is estimated to earn over $20,000 less than the average public sector bus driver."
On top of the fear of privatised services, transport workers are also frustrated with the Government's recent manufacturing commitment to foreign-made trains, in particular, the agreement to purchase a regional fleet of trains from the Spanish manufacturer responsible for the inner-west light rail.
This deal ensures that much of Australia's future trains will not be manufactured domestically, leading to the possibility of mass redundancies across Australia's rail manufacturing industry. A 2017 economic report by Deloitte stated that the Australian rail industry creates 140,000 jobs and roughly $26 billion a year for the economy.
Despite this contribution, the Australian Government continues to outsource transport manufacturing to foreign countries, threatening the livelihoods of Australian rail workers and disregarding the economic benefits of domestic manufacturing.
Within the last decade, transport workers have seen their industry and job security severely compromised by ongoing privatisation. Rail employees are expected to participate in roles without any guarantees for their future. The anxiety surrounding this has seen the RTBU beg the Government for greater job security. As stated in the union's official bargaining list; "Workers want a commitment to services and jobs in the event of privatisation."
2. FAIR WAGE INCREASES
Despite being essential for the NSW and national economy, rail workers feel they are still not properly paid for their hard work. Transport employees worked continually throughout the pandemic, causing the union to fight for a wage increase which reflects the risks and sacrifices made by rail workers everyday. As part of their bargaining the RTBU is "demanding a 3.5% yearly pay rise."
Another major concern for the RTBU is the compromise of worker safety by recent Government decisions. As well as hindering workers economically, the NSW government's decision to purchase a new fleet of trains from Spanish company, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarrile (CAF), poses a serious safety threat to rail employees. CAF was responsible for the inner west light rail, which was recently out of-order due to severe cracking issues, leaving many workers concerned for the reliability of the foreign-made trains.
“The New Regional Fleet is designed to be built in such a way that the front carriage would be at real risk of derailment if it hits anything like a fallen tree or an animal on the tracks,” said RBTU Secretary Alex Classens.
“That’s a serious concern given that in Australia, particularly regional Australia, hitting things on our tracks is commonplace."
These threats to worker safety saw the RTBU implore the NSW Government to “tear up the contract” with CAF, an action the State Government seemingly has no plan to do. This lack of concern has led the RTBU to place this safety claim on their bargaining list; "Workers want a guarantee that any changes to our services will leave them as safe or safer."
A separate element of safety is the maintenance of proper hygiene levels on rail networks. On the 29th of April 2020,Transport NSW announced that "more than 550 new and redeployed cleaners" would be employed to ensure hygiene levels and COVID-19 safety on NSW public transport. However, as restrictions begin to loosen throughout Australia, many transport workers fear that these extra hygiene measures will be resigned to cut costs. To combat this threat to worker safety, the RTBU has pushed for hygiene standards in their official bargains, stating, "Workers want a commitment to maintaining the existing level of hygiene using good, publicly owned jobs
What Actually happened?
In early 2022, RBTU Secretary Mr Classens announced that, due to the Government's inaction in creating a new Enterprise Agreement, union members would take part in a "ban on ‘altered working,’ meaning that they perform the shifts they are set without any changes". The ban was entirely lawful under the Fair Work Commission and was meant to draw the attention of NSW Transport management to the several bargains the State Government disregarded.
“There’s no strike — workers are simply performing the shifts we’re set without any changes,” said Mr Classens in a media release put out the day before the ban was going to occur.
However, on the morning of the intended industrial action, rail employees turned up to work to find that the NSW Government had shut down the Metropolitan and Intercity Rail networks. Transport Minister David Elliot pointed to safety concerns when asked to explain the sudden train stoppage.
"You can't operate a rail network without a guarantee that there would be a safe way to operate," he said.
The RTBU felt that management and the Government were keen to shut down the train services so that they wouldn't have to face the repercussions of an overtime ban.
“Today’s rail shut down was a huge dummy spit by the NSW Government …To deliberately shut down the rail network on such a big day for many people, seemingly so they can run a fear campaign about unions or make a political point, is quite extraordinary," the Secretary said.
After hours of disrupted train services, Transport NSW ended the day by reassuring the Australian public that all train services would return to normal the following day.
What was the Response?
The purpose of any sort of industrial action is to conjure a reaction and catalyse material change for union members, but in the weeks following the RBTU's ban, many are still confused as to what the response actually was.
The initial Government response was one of disdain. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to denounce the RBTU.
"The union movement has decided to really pull the rug out on our first day back," he told Radio Station 2GB, "I mean, this is not how this should be done and I feel for all of those Sydneysiders today who are affected by the strike."
Transport Minister David Elliot went even further, accusing the union of "terrorist-like activity". But outside of radio interviews and media spinning, what was the Government actually doing in response to the alleged "strike"?
The Government combatted the RTBU by trying to sue them for even attempting legal industrial action.
“The NSW Government’s treatment of Sydney and NSW Trains workers and commuters has been appalling for a long time,” Mr Classens said, “but bringing in expensive lawyers in a bid to silence workers who are merely trying to get their safety concerns heard is a new low.”
In the following days, the Government quickly dropped all claims against the Union in the Fair Work Commission.
It seems that the ban and subsequent shutdown of the train system has not had a significant impact on the Enterprise Agreement. Instead of responding to industrial action with mobility, dialogue, and compromise, the Liberal Government seems to be using the upset for cheap points in the months leading up to the election.
"Make no mistake, this is a coordinated attack by the Labor party and the union movement," said Premier Dominic Perrotett.
With all the bickering between the RTBU and the NSW Government, there seems to be a crucial bit of dialogue left behind — the conversation between the union and the public. When speaking with average commuters, a majority of them had a frustrated and slightly misconstrued understanding of the overtime ban and government stoppages, with one train user saying, “The strike is just annoying cause I'm trying to get to work, I don't even know what they're striking for.” It almost seems like the RTBU had been so focused on communicating with Government bodies and internal members that many average Australians have been left out of the conversation.
It almost seems like the RTBU had been so focused on communicating with Government bodies and internal members that many average Australians have been left out of the conversation.
Unions are an essential foundation of our workforce and are responsible for much of the ethicality surrounding employment. But is it suffering from a communication problem? The RTBU is fairly effective at communicating with the NSW Government, but many average commuters struggle to know what the union is asking for. Many Australians lack background knowledge on the reasoning for industrial action, and many were left feeling blindsided by the RTBU's industrial action even to this day. "I just felt like a pawn in their game," said one commuter. Of course, this frustration towards unions is leveraged by political media spin, but in reflecting upon the 21st of February, one wonders how the union could benefit from taking more action to involve and inform commuters in their industry struggles. How, in opening up a dialogue between union members and the Australian public, we could more effectively understand and combat the injustices and exploitations of the workplace