What’s being called a ‘breakdown of negotiations’ between the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union (RBTU) and the NSW Government in the early hours of Monday morning caused all passenger trains across Greater Sydney to come to a standstill. But who’s to blame? Both parties were quick to point fingers at the other for the shutdown yesterday, but the truth doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.
The RTBU says that rail workers showed up to work yesterday prepared to “take part in low level protected industrial action which would not have impacted commuters,” only to face locked doors. The planned industrial action follows two hearings before the Fair Work Commission over the weekend.
Alex Claassens, the NSW Secretary of RTBU says, “it’s time the NSW Government stopped trying to bully workers into submission and started resolving the laundry list of safety and employment issues workers have raised,” and blames the NSW Government for pulling the plug on operations yesterday.
Mr Claassens was quick to point out that “this is not a strike.” Rather, the union had planned to cause minimal disruption to services by engaging in protected industrial action: including, for example, the refusal of jobs that workers were not rostered to complete.
However, the NSW Government is singing a different tune. NSW Transport Minister, David Elliot, likened the RTBU’s demand for industry change to “terrorist-like activity,” and claimed the union had “deliberately misinterpreted” the outcome of the hearing in the preceding days. Mr Elliot scoffed at the idea that the NSW government “would want to stop the rail network,” but supported Transport for NSW’s decision to stop the trains until they could assess whether the network “could operate safely within the confines of what the union had offered up.”
Chief executive of Sydney Trains, Matt Longland, claimed responsibility for the decision to halt services yesterday afternoon. While the NSW Transport Minister claimed the closures were instigated by the RTBU, it was Sydney Trains, a child organisation of Transport for NSW, itself a state government agency under the responsibility of Mr Elliot, that admitted to making the final call.
While the debate between the RTBU and the NSW Government is yet to reach a conclusion, both sides do tell a story. The NSW Government may be feeling pressure to respond to the numerous union actions that have been making waves in the past month, especially in light of the looming election.
One Tuesday in mid-February saw thousands of nurses march through Sydney CBD to call for pay rises, better working conditions, and legislated staff-to-patient ratios in the workplace to prevent the continued loss of health professionals in the sector. Union member, Grace Langlands, said of the march, “we need to put ourselves first so we can provide the appropriate care, with the appropriate number and the appropriate safety.” This is also hot on the heels of the teacher’s strike back in December, when the Teachers Federation Council was left with “no choice” after 18 months of negotiation with the NSW Government went nowhere.
The Great Resignation 2.0?
The rail network closure affects all of us in more ways than one. As a symbol for industrial action, it represents workers’ dissatisfaction with working conditions, fair compensation, and government support. Amid what has been dubbed the “great resignation,” industry action like this can paint a candid picture of needed change. However, the shutdown of the rail network also provides another lens that colours the events of the past two days as a purely class-based issue.
According to the Tourism and Transport forum, “public transport in major metropolitan cities can be the fastest, safest, and cheapest way to connect to work, family, and social activities—facilitating social inclusion and providing additional opportunity,” especially for social groups facing disadvantage, such as low-income earners, the elderly, and people with disabilities. In reality, there are more parties affected by this exchange than simply the NSW Government and the RTBU.
While all different and specific in scope, the grievances of the unions cannot be looked at as separate from the actions of the government and overarching governing bodies that police these jobs. The response of the NSW Government in the coming weeks may help many young people in making their decision in the voting booth later this year.
Hi, I’m Steph and I use she/her pronouns! I’m a current Creative Writing PhD student and contributor here at Opus. My favourite genre to write is fantasy, but I also love stretching my writerly muscles with reviews, think pieces, and horoscopes. When I’m not writing for Opus, you’ll probably find me with my nose in a book, nomming on some vegan banana bread, or farming my crops on Stardew Valley.