The national head of the rail union hopes a recent federal intervention will put the “go slow” on any attempt by the New South Wales government to terminate the enterprise agreement of thousands of rail workers in the state.
The federal employment minister, Tony Burke, has faced a wave of criticism from the NSW government and the federal opposition for a letter he sent to the Fair Work Commission’s president last week. In the letter, Burke flagged Labor’s plans to change the laws covering the termination of enterprise agreements.
On Monday Burke defended sending the letter, saying it was “not unusual … to update the commission on what’s happening with legislation”.
The letter came just days after the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said he would seek to launch a termination application against the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) if it undertook more strike action amid a prolonged and hostile industrial dispute in the state.
Burke said he wanted the laws to be “fit for purpose and fair” and expressed concern at “some employers threatening to terminate agreements as a bargaining tactic”.
The timing of the letter has infuriated the NSW Coalition government, with the industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, to seek advice on whether Burke may have breached the Fair Work Act by allegedly seeking to influence the commission improperly.
On Monday Perrottet joined the criticism, calling the intervention “highly unusual” and saying he believed the timing was “hardly a coincidence”.
Burke has denied that, pointing out that he did not mention the case by name in the letter and saying it would have been “irresponsible” to not flag potential changes to the Fair Work Act.
But the RTBU’s leadership said they had lobbied Burke on the issue, with the national secretary, Mark Diamond, telling the Guardian he hoped the letter could put a “go slow” on the commission if it did hear a termination application.
“What I’m hoping the letter does is maybe it encourage the Fair Work Commission not just to consider the fact the legislation is going to change, but [also] to potentially go slow on such an application,” Diamond said.
The RTBU will seek to force the government back to the bargaining table at a hearing in the commission on Tuesday, after the combined rail unions accused the government of failing to bargain in good faith, and warned that the industrial strife that has plagued Sydney’s transport network may continue even if the government went ahead with the termination application.
The state government on Monday backed down on an ultimatum for the union to drop all industrial action to instead say it would put those events in motion if the union “inconveniences the people of NSW”.
While the state secretary of the RTBU, Alex Claassens, said on Monday he believed it was an “empty threat” from the government, Diamond said the letter would probably be used by the union if the case went ahead.
“There’s a public interest test here when you go to terminate an agreement [and] why wouldn’t we argue [that] this [power] is going to disappear anyway?” he said.
Diamond said it was “entirely appropriate” for Burke to have sent the letter.
“Why wouldn’t he tell the commission the world is changing or about to change? It’s a consideration the Fair Work Commission should know about. This is a clear-cut issue and Burke laid down that principle on terminations the first day of the jobs summit,” he said.
Diamond said he had not requested such a letter, but had spoken to Burke about the issue of termination powers when he was in opposition.
“I wish I could take ownership. I have been advocating for this [change] from day one, it’s been something that of course I’ve spoken to Tony Burke about when he was the shadow, but the whole union movement has spoken to him about it,” he said.