Dominic Perrottet’s 11th-hour decision to press the nuclear button in the long-running dispute with rail workers is a high-risk gambit. The New South Wales premier has bet the house on his ability to win a public relations war against the union.
For months, the state government has insisted that rail strikes that have crippled Sydney’s transport network are “politically motivated”.
Senior MPs including the treasurer, Matt Kean, have sought to draw attention to the links that the head of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, Alex Claassens, has to the Labor party and his position on its powerful administrative committee.
That’s despite the NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, publicly calling on the RTBU to end the strikes, and Perrottet’s comments on Tuesday that his government was on a “unity ticket” with the opposition.
Whatever the validity of the argument, by threatening to tear up the rail workers’ industrial agreement if they vote down the government’s offer, Perrottet has all but guaranteed this saga will drag into the election cycle.
Perrottet said on Wednesday that after 58 meetings with the RTBU and affiliated unions, he was finished negotiating.
Rail workers are to be forced to vote on the government’s most recent offer, despite a list of claims – including a push for a 0.5% pay bump above the public sector wages cap – being outstanding.
If they vote it down, Perrottet said, the government will seek to terminate their enterprise agreement in the Fair Work Commission.
That decision blows out the timeline of this saga for months. It will probably take between five and six weeks just for any ballot to be completed.
Then, if – as the union expects – the rail workers do vote down the offer and Perrottet follows through on the threat, a Fair Work case could take three to four months to argue.
Such a timeline would take us into the new year, when both sides will be well into campaign mode ahead of the March election.
The government knows this. In making the decision to escalate the dispute, Perrottet and his industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, determined they had no other choice.
Unwilling to fold on the key sticking points – particularly over pay – after months of wrangling over the multibillion dollar intercity fleet, they are betting that frustration over the routine delays and cancellations plaguing the rail system will see sentiment turn against the union, if it hasn’t already.
They’ll also hope some of that anger is directed at the Labor party.
For the unions, the question is whether they want to risk a fight in the commission.
While Perrottet said on Wednesday that pay would remain the same, losing the fight would take workers back to the modern award – and risk existing conditions if a new agreement was negotiated.
There are also risks for the government. For one, the strategy assumes people care enough about the vagaries of an industrial dispute to pick a side.
But when the issue is whether you can get home from work on time in an over-crowded carriage, it’s entirely possible that voters could decide that there are no good guys in the fight.
The unions will argue that a deal was close to being finalised, and the government’s decision to prolong the battle could work against them.
There are also broader issues at play. The ability for employers to petition to terminate enterprise agreements has been a bugbear for unions for some time, and it was only this month that the federal industrial relations minister, Tony Burke, was critical of employers who made threats to cancel agreements.
“It’s something which I don’t think can be justified … to employees, ‘either vote for the agreement that’s on the table or you’ll get a pay cut’,” he said.
“Now, that shouldn’t be what people are weighing up when they vote for an agreement.”
Employers are dead against the change, but ahead of Thursday’s jobs summit, the timing of Perrottet’s intervention could spark a more intense debate on the issue.