The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has issued a sensational ultimatum to the state’s rail workers, vowing to tear up their industrial agreement and meet the union in court unless they accept his government’s final pay offer.
Amid the latest round of chaos on the state’s rail lines on Wednesday, a visibly angry Perrottet said that after 58 meetings he would no longer bargain with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) over a new enterprise agreement.
Instead, he has ordered the transport minister, David Elliott, to present a final offer to the union during a scheduled meeting on Wednesday.
If the union takes any further industrial action, or its members refused to accept the offer, Perrottet said the government would tear up the existing enterprise agreement – and its commitment to modifying the multibillion-dollar intercity rail fleet – and go to the Fair Work Commission.
“This ends today, it will not continue,” Perrottet said.
“I will not have our city grind to a halt, our people inconvenienced any more by the actions of a union movement that belongs back in the 1970s.”
The RTBU’s NSW secretary, Alex Claassens, said the threats were “empty rhetoric”.
“There is no way they’re allowed to do that ... there are laws in this country,” Claassens said.
“We’ve got a bunch of people out there making public comment that do not understand how the Fair Work Act works.”
Sydney’s lord mayor, Clover Moore, called on the government to make public transport free for all users until the dispute was resolved.
She said the breakdown had “gone on far too long” and, while it was important that workers were safe and well paid, “we have to keep Sydney moving”.
The union has been pushing for changes to the intercity fleet for more than two years, refusing to operate the new fleet of trains over what it says are safety concerns.
But despite the Coalition government committing to modifications, the union has continued to run industrial action – including a ban on operating foreign-made trains on Wednesday that has caused chaos on Sydney’s train lines – because of its concerns over conditions attached to the deed committing to the changes.
On Tuesday Claassens said the union was still pushing for an extra 0.5% pay increase above the public sector wages cap of 3% in year one, and 3.5% in year two of the agreement.
Asked on Wednesday if the government’s final offer would include the raised pay rate, Perrottet responded: “No.”
Moore said the crisis would put a handbrake on the city’s post-Covid recovery.
“If people can’t get into and around our CBD safely, easily and affordably, how will it recover from the impacts of the pandemic?” she said.
“It’s affecting everyone, from school kids to essential frontline workers, our own city staff and visitors from across the world.”
While Perrottet said the government would tear up the agreement if any further industrial action was taken before the government’s final offer was put to a vote, he also said he would take the same step if rail workers refused the offer.
Last week Elliott said he did not want to take the step of cancelling the agreement. On Wednesday he said he had been “overruled” by the premier.
He expressed frustration with the union after he had attempted to broker a deal between the two parties, accusing them of “moving the goalposts”.
“I backed them in every step of the way; they’ve shat on me from a great height,” he said.
Claassens, speaking prior to the premier’s comments, criticised “boofhead politicians” for language he said were leading to threats against rail workers.
“It has to stop, and it has to stop today,” he said
“I’m calling on everyone to respect the workforce and stop attacking people.”