Train strike dispute: NSW government threats won’t stop further disruptions, unions say

Dominic Perrottet says he will only seek to tear up workers’ agreement if industrial action ‘inconveniences’ commuters

Rail unions in New South Wales have warned the industrial strife that has plagued Sydney’s transport network could continue even if the government sought to terminate the enterprise agreement of thousands of rail workers.

Ahead of a Fair Work Commission hearing on Tuesday, a submission by the combined rail unions accuses the Coalition government of making a series of “abrupt reversals” on their position during protracted industrial bargaining, which has seen the city’s transport network plagued by delays and disruptions for months.

The commission case was brought by the unions in a bid to force the government back to the negotiating table after the premier, Dominic Perrottet, said he would seek to tear up the enterprise agreement covering about 13,000 rail workers if they did not end their industrial campaign.

But the submission, which accuses the government of bad-faith bargaining, warned if the commission does not force the government back to the negotiating table it could lead to further industrial chaos.

“There is limited prospect that the dispute will be resolved in the short term without very significant industrial disputation,” it stated.

“Needless to say, the threat to apply to terminate the current agreements, if carried through, would only inflame the situation.”

The submission noted that “such an application, contrary to government statements, does not prevent industrial action, even if successful”.

While the unions argue that the two parties’ positions on issues such as wages – where the unions want a 0.5% bump above the government’s public sector wage cap – is “not irreconcilable”, it also accuses ministers of inflaming debate with “hostile, sometimes misleading and invariably unhelpful public commentary”.

That commentary, the union claimed, “heighten emotions and made it more difficult for the [combined rail unions] to persuade their members to minimise industrial action and to make concessions”.

It comes as Perrottet appeared to partially backtrack on his threat to have the agreement torn up if the unions failed to cancel all industrial action.

After publicly warning the unions he would seek to launch proceedings to terminate the agreement and tear up a deal to modify to a multi-billion train fleet if workers did not cease industrial action, Perrottet said he would only put those events in motion if industrial action “inconveniences the people of NSW”.

“My position is very clear … if there’s any industrial action on the network that inconveniences the people of our state, or there is any industrial action on the metro construction that costs taxpayers dollars, we will move immediately to terminate the enterprise agreement,” he said.

The government had previously said the threat included the ongoing actions – including leaving station gates open.

Perrottet has entered a dispute with the federal Labor government over what they said was an intervention by the employment minister, Tony Burke, in its ongoing and increasingly toxic dispute with the rail unions.

The state Coalition was irate that Burke contacted the commission last week flagging Labor planned to limit the power of employers to terminate enterprise agreements.

The NSW industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, denounced the letter as “a disgrace”, but Burke dismissed the criticism, saying he had not mentioned the dispute in the letter and that it would have been “irresponsible” for him not to alert the commission of potential changes to the Fair Work Act.

On Monday though, Perrottet said he believed the timing of the letter was “highly unusual”.

“It’s hardly a coincidence [and] I would say this just demonstrates … Labor focusing more on the unions than on our people,” he said.

“I’ve made it very clear what my position is and once again what it shows is this connection between Labor and the unions.”

On Monday the head of the NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union, Alex Claassens, said he did not know whether Burke had been lobbied by officials from his union’s national leadership prior to sending the letter.

“I don’t know what’s happened in the national space, all I can say to you is that our union has been fighting that particular issue for seven years,” he said.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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