Bus drivers in Sydney’s inner west are fighting privatisation, staging strike action in defiance of the Industrial Relations Commission.
Despite being told in December that all public bus contracts would be maintained, Transport Minister Andrew Constance has announced plans to contract out the inner west region’s bus services. At least 59 routes from Sans Souci in the south to Olympic Park in the west as well as another 150 school services in the inner west and south Sydney will be put into private hands.
“Drivers are panicking, morning and afternoon, in the depots,” one Tempe depot driver told Solidarity.
Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RBTU) Bus Division Secretary Chris Preston said the Government’s decision would, “result in rolling closures of bus services and bus stops for commuters across Inner Western Sydney, affecting tens of thousands of commuters.”
“Private bus operators put profits before the public. To make money they’ll slash services and cut back on maintenance. We’ve seen it happen before. Less popular, less profitable bus routes get the chop and commuters are left stranded.”
After already cutting 200 back office staff, a further 1200 public transport workers’ jobs are on the line.
While drivers were ordered by the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) not to take industrial action, hundreds of bus drivers at depots in Leichhardt, Burwood, Kingsgrove and Tempe voted to hold a 24-hour strike against the surprise announcement.
Despite a second order from the IRC, drivers and the RBTU followed the strike with a region wide fare-free day on 1 June.
“At ground level it really raised community awareness around bus privatisation, people appreciated us notifying them and we received a lot of support,” said a Kingsgrove depot driver.
Drivers were issued letters from the government threatening fines for taking any further fare-free day actions. But with their jobs at stake some drivers tore the letters up in front of depot managers.
“The union acts as a watchdog for the community and the workers in any given sector. If something isn’t right we can yell out, we keep the government honest,” he added.
While the transport minister has justified the decision citing lateness and a high level of complaints, including buses refusing to stop to pick up passengers, one Tempe depot driver explained that, “in peak hour our buses are often jam packed full, if it’s full we can’t stop”. The solution is not privatisation, but more buses.
Step up the fight
While 11 of Sydney’s 15 bus regions are already in private hands, the remaining four run by the State Transit Authority (STA) carry the vast majority of passengers. Large private enterprises Keolis Downer and Transit Systems are desperate to get their hands on Sydney bus services, including the new bus corridor known as the “B-Line” from Sydney’s CBD to the lower north shore and northern beaches opening next year.
The NSW Liberal government is selling off practically everything in sight. It has privatised the power industry, the Land Titles Office, hospitals, ports and disability services. Sydney’s government-owned ferries were sold off to a private consortium in 2012. Steffen Faurby, the former boss of Sydney Ferries, has now become the chief executive of STA and is at it again.
This is a fight that can win. There is enormous public opposition to privatisation. If the bus drivers are prepared to step up the strike action, and spread it beyond immediately affected depots, they can force the government to back down.
The Liberal state government will not rule out further bus service privatisations. This means it is not just bus drivers and services in the inner west that are at threat. This is a fight that everyone must get behind.
By Matt Meagher