Federal government seeks to change law that has become central to Sydney train strike dispute

NSW government had threatened to terminate existing enterprise agreement with rail workers over ongoing industrial action

The federal government has put the Fair Work Commission on notice that it plans to restrict the power of employers to terminate enterprise agreements, something the state Coalition in New South Wales this week threatened to do in its ongoing dispute with rail workers.

After months of bargaining and Sydney train strikes, the NSW government announced on Thursday it would seek to terminate its existing agreement covering thousands of rail workers in the state if the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) failed to cease industrial action.

The government said on Thursday it would halt negotiations on a future agreement, and unless the RTBU stopped all action by 5pm on Friday it would seek to launch a termination application on the current one.

However, that deadline was later dropped after the union on Friday moved an urgent motion before the commission seeking to force the government back to the bargaining table. In a hearing on Friday afternoon, the commission agreed to hear the application next Tuesday.

“No further action will be taken by the Rail Entities before the current matter is heard by the FWC,” the NSW industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, said in a statement after the hearing.

“It is apparent that this application to the FWC is a delaying tactic by rail unions that are adamant on blocking a vote of employees and on dragging out these negotiations so that they can continue their political campaign of disruptive strikes.”

“The NSW government respects the process and procedures of the FWC and awaits the outcome of proceedings.”

Also on Friday, the federal employment and workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, wrote to the president of the commission signalling his intention to release new legislation which would limit the power of employers to seek terminations of enterprise agreements.

Though the letter did not mention the ongoing dispute in NSW, Burke said he was “concerned by the practice of some employers threatening to terminate agreements as a bargaining tactic”.

The changes, which had been flagged at the government’s jobs summit in Canberra, would include amendments “limiting the circumstances in which employers can apply unilaterally to the commission for termination of an agreement where doing so would result in reducing employees’ entitlements”, he said.

While the Coalition in NSW is yet to comment on the letter, the timing is likely to raise eyebrows in Macquarie Street as it gears up for what could be a prolonged court battle with the rail unions.

On Friday morning the head of the RTBU, Alex Claassens, said the union would ignore the government’s 5pm deadline to halt industrial action and said further strikes could be on the way.

“We have no intention of stopping our protected industrial action and the premier shouldn’t be surprised if more industrial action is called next week,” he said.

At the Fair Work Commission on Tuesday, the union will aim to force the government back to the bargaining table as well as gag government ministers, including the premier, Dominic Perrottet, from making public statements about the bargaining process for 14 days.

“They’re unusual orders we accept, but the idea is for there to be a bit of clear air and that some of the collateral skirmishing happening in the media and in public be paused at least for 14 days to allow the parties to focus on the substance and avoid distraction,” the union barrister, Oshie Fagir, said.

The government’s demands on Thursday afternoon blindsided union officials, who had believed they would only act on the threat to seek the cancellation of the enterprise agreement if the RTBU brought on more industrial action.

Instead, the letter sent by the secretary of the transport department, Rob Sharp, said all existing action – including leaving Opal gates open – had to cease by 5pm today or the government would launch court action.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Claassens said.

Contributor

Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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