Members of the Rail, Tram & Bus Union (RTBU) working for Sydney and NSW went on strike on 28 September. For four hours, a “full stoppage” left just a handful of services running for essential workers. For the RTBU, the decision was reluctant. It was the culmination of a week of escalating action, with actions invisible to the public such as a ban on graffiti cleaning and an overtime ban making way for more disruptive protests including driving at reduced speeds and honking their horns. All of these actions come as a response to the state government’s refusal to accept the RTBU’s requests in ongoing enterprise bargaining. Unfortunately, this refusal is unsurprising. Consecutive Liberal governments have a long history of adherence to neoliberal transport planning and of ignoring worker demands. Substituting publicly utile infrastructure policy with superficial budget-oriented planning, a decade-long pursuit of neoliberalism has given NSW an inadequate rail network with significant economic and personal costs. The election of Dominic Perrottet, who is well versed in asset-recycling against the public’s best interests, should only increase the urgency of support for the striking train drivers and the RTBU more generally.
For six months, the RTBU has been negotiating an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) with management for NSW and Sydney trains. Twin issues of safety and payment are causes for dispute. Despite the union’s concerns that guards are essential for safety, the government is pushing ahead with the roll out of a new class of intercity trains that forego them in favour of CCTV monitoring by drivers. Union demands to make COVID-19 cleaning staff permanent have also been denied, in a concerning move for public health. The RTBU is also demanding a 3.5% yearly pay rise, with the government only offering 0.3% in the first year of the agreement, and 2.6% thereafter. Even before a recent spike which has taken it to above 3%, Australia’s inflation rate has been steady at 2.7%. Anything less than the union’s demands would represent a real pay cut, weakening the finances of some of the economy’s most valuable employees.
The obvious human benefit of the union’s demands would stand in contrast to the historic treatment of rail workers by management. January 2018, when Sydney’s famously reliable trains were struck by “indefinite delays”, was a peak in the increasing demands placed on train drivers. The state had hired, and still hires, too few drivers working too many hours for not enough money. When workers have previously tried to strike, they have been unable to express their concerns. The Fair Work Commission prohibited a planned RTBU strike in 2018 and more recently allowed NSW Trains to unilaterally alter the established EBA, in a decision described by RTBU secretary Alex Claassens as “fail[ing] working people, plain and simple.” In abstaining from purchasing enough modern trains and increasing the capacity of rail infrastructure, the state government has pushed its burden of easing overcrowding onto transport workers who were already working significant amounts of overtime. This is not just bad policy but heightens the state’s moral obligation to remunerate workers for the crucial role they undertake, especially considering the restrictions placed on workers expressing their demands.
Properly funding workers and the rail network is hugely advantageous for NSW as a whole. Rail is essential to the state economy’s productivity and overall mobility. It is particularly important for many vulnerable people living far from the CBD. Efficient rail transport has flow on effects in reducing congestion and the acute impact of car use on the environment. To the extent that workers are prerequisites to these benefits, and poor conditions tangibly impede their ability to fulfill this role, paying rail workers makes economic sense.
While staff are at the locus of the present debate, the government’s treatment of workers is emblematic of a wider neoliberal attitude to transport that is highly damaging. Led by the recently departed Gladys Berejiklian, the decision to convert the Sydenham to Bankstown stretch of the T3 line appears bizarrely inefficient considering its comparatively low need for investment compared to other suburban lines. Bizarre, unless you consider the massive potential for unequal developer-led growth that the metro will provide.
The worst example of the relentless pursuit of a surplus went shockingly underreported. An accounting trick worth $40 billion, the Transport Asset Holding Entity (TAHE) was conceived by state Liberals as a way of artificially inflating the state’s budget by pretending the costs of the public transport system weren’t theirs to pay. With Perrottet as the key government stakeholder, TAHE represents highly dishonest decision-making that has had poor outcomes. Ongoing parliamentary committee hearings have found that TAHE undercharged its customers by $700 million to protect the budget illusion, while paying its CEO a half-million-dollar salary. Most perniciously, the RTBU and state Labor fear that TAHE represents a significant safety risk. A risk which the government has been warned of, but has seemingly ignored. There is a serious problem when a government decides to search for a surplus so desperately that it would ignore reports ostensibly formulated to save lives after the deadly twin rail disasters of the late 1990s.
The privatisation of Sydney Ferries with the accompanying cost increases and loss of iconic Manly ferries, as well as Sydney’s network of toll roads show that this problem extends well beyond the state’s trains. With privatisation as the beating heart of the state government’s neoliberalism, it does not appear to be a problem which will resolve itself. We should call out and oppose this method of managing public transport and rail in particular. In the meantime, train workers and the RTBU getting what they are asking for would do a great deal of good.