Despite an aggressive state Liberal government, and court orders against industrial action, the fight by Sydney’s inner west bus drivers against privatisation is very much alive.
A three month ban on industrial action from 17 May to 17 August had just elapsed, when the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) again issued orders against the RTBU and bus drivers taking industrial action against privatisation for another three months from 18 August.
The latest move to ban industrial action came as the campaign against privatisation began to ramp up.
The NSW government ran to the court on the same day that the RTBU announced that bus drivers’ were “ready to walk”, and would take action to “keep public transport in public hands.”
A 24-hour stoppage on 18 May was absolutely solid and then a very popular fare-free day on 1 June had the government deeply worried. In a spiteful attempt to stifle the industrial action and divide the workers, on 2 June, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance cut the drivers’ industry allowance—an allowance paid for adhering to an official “disputes resolution procedure”. Although the allowance has since been reinstated, up to $150 a week was cut from all Sydney drivers’ pay packets, even though only Region six drivers in the inner west took strike action.
Despite the hit to their pay packets, drivers’ remained determined to fight privatisation. But the fines and the IRC orders put the frighteners on the union leadership. Following the latest orders, RTBU officials convened another delegates meeting and invited Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey and national RTBU Secretary Bob Nanva.
Support from Unions NSW for strike action would have been an enormous boost to the confidence of the drivers and made it clear to the government that strike action had union-wide support. A clause in the award also provides some protection from the government removing the drivers’ industry allowance if strike action is directed by Unions NSW.
Unions NSW has produced glossy anti-privatisation fact sheets and its officials have been prominent at the depot protests handing anti-privatisation petitions to politicians.
Region six delegates remained unanimously in support of strike action, but the meeting was not so clear about the feeling at depots outside Region six.
After the meeting, RTBU officials argued that strike action might result in the union being fined and there wasn’t enough support for an industrial campaign.
But as the word spread among the drivers, so did the anger. Everyone knew that there was widespread support for strike action. After the successful strike action in May followed by community meetings, some members felt the union had let down the campaign. Some were so disgusted they resigned in protest.
The three community meetings called to oppose privatisation—in Leichhardt, Marrickville and the city—were packed. More than 30,000 people, mostly in Region six, have now signed a petition against the NSW government’s privatisation moves.
There is a determination among the drivers for a campaign that goes beyond a “community campaign” of petitions and door-knocking in marginal electorates. Depot meetings with Unions NSW officials would quickly establish the mood amongst the members.
The drivers are up against a very ideologically-driven government. Media reports have revealed that the NSW government sabotaged efforts by the State Transit Authority to improve on-time running in 2015.
Constance recently told a recent business gathering, “I have a very clear view… that, into the future, government will no longer be providing services when it comes to transport—there’s no need,” he said. But there is a very big need. Public transport is already under strain—and a privatised bus service would slash routes, close bus stops and cut around 1200 jobs.
The government got away with privatising Newcastle’s buses. Newcastle drivers’ jobs are only guaranteed for 18 months. In August, the new corporate owner, Keolis Downer, underpaid more than a dozen bus drivers. Others missed out on entitlements. There are numerous reports of bus cancellations.
“We are not going to let that happen in Sydney, fines or no fines. The union needs to know that drivers are determined to keep the fight going,” one driver told Solidarity. Bus drivers are keenly discussing the next steps in the campaign.
Although the date is still to be set, Unions NSW is calling a combined union delegates meeting in September. The anti-privatisation campaign and the demands of the bus drivers should be a central part of that meeting. The Unions NSW stopwork rally on 16 November can back drivers’ strike action on the day and put the fight against privatisation at the middle of NSW unions fight against the Liberals’ war on workers.