The toxic industrial dispute between the New South Wales government and the state’s rail union has again descended into legal threats, this time over plans to shut off the Opal card readers at Sydney’s train stations.
As the two feuding parties met in the Fair Work Commission for a full day’s hearing on Wednesday, the state transport department said it was seeking legal advice over plans by the Rail, Tram and Bus Union to switch off the electronic gates.
A spokesperson for Sydney Trains said on Wednesday that it “does not consider this ban to be protected or lawful action and is seeking legal advice, and will write to the RTBU seeking a withdrawal of this action”.
Amid months of industrial strife on the state rail network, the union has left Opal card readers open allowing commuters to travel for free along the network.
Despite that, on Wednesday NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, boasted most people had continued to use the readers.
“That just shows the people of NSW just want to get on with it,” Perrottet said.
The union decided to take the additional action of switching the gates off entirely as it sought to force the government back to the negotiating table during a hearing the Fair Work Commission on Wednesday.
That hearing – which is yet to conclude – will see the parties enter formal conciliation on Friday.
On Wednesday the secretary of the NSW RTBU, Alex Claassens, said he was confident the proposed action was in line with a suite of protected actions the union is entitled to take.
“As far as we’re concerned we’re within our rights,” he said.
“If they’ve got a problem with us they can take us to wherever they need to take us.”
Claassens, who said the action would continue “indefinitely”, did not rule out further action when the current Fair Work hearing concluded, despite a threat from Perrottet to seek to tear up the industrial agreement covering rail workers if the union took any further actions which disrupted commuters.
“At this point we’re going through a process and we’re honouring the process because we’ve always said we will,” Claassens said.
“Having said that, once this process is over we’ll have those hard conversations … I can tell you that there are still delegates out there that want to take more action.”
It comes as the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, on Wednesday defended the decision by employment minister Tony Burke to write to the commission outlining plans for changes to the Fair Work Act making it harder for employers to seek to terminate agreements.
That letter – written at the height of the NSW train dispute – infuriated the Coalition government in NSW, with the state’s industrial relations minister, Damien Tudehope, investigating whether Burke may have improperly influenced the commission.
Standing alongside Perrottet, Albanese said “he didn’t” overstep the mark.
“Minister Burke wrote to the Fair Work Commission as he has on four separate occasions to indicate what were likely to be policy changes, that’s appropriate. There has been no intervention and it’s a matter of dispute between the NSW government and the RTBU. I’d certainly encourage all parties to come to a resolution.”