It started with an old union song, “Solidarity forever”, blasting away in the Central Station sign-on room. Train drivers and guards started to congregate, wearing blue Rail Tram and Bus Union shirts emblazoned with “union and proud”. When a shift manager walked into the room, the song changed abruptly to “Who Let the Dogs Out” as workers burst out laughing.
These were the moments before an eight-hour strike engulfed the New South Wales rail network. Thousands of train guards, drivers, signallers, crew support officers, track workers, shunters, station staff and cleaners brought the arteries of the NSW public transport system to a grinding halt.
At Central, the biggest depot on the network, the mood was jubilant. One hundred and fifty workers were joined by sympathetic members of the public at the Grand Concourse of Central Station to chant, sing and speak out about our fight against the state government. Similar rallies occurred at every depot across New South Wales.
Workers were clear on what this fight was all about.
“We’re here to send a message to the government, which is trying to force an unsafe train onto our network just so they can get rid of guards from our train services”, Damian, a socialist and the head delegate at Central, said at the rally on Monday night. “We won’t stand for that. We’re fighting for respect at work, for a decent pay rise and to defend our conditions.”
After almost a year of ignoring the union’s log of claims, NSW Transport has offered a paltry 2.5 percent pay rise, which includes the federally mandated superannuation increase of almost 0.5 percent. In other words, workers are being told to take an “increase” well below inflation—a pay cut as the cost of living in Sydney continues to soar.
“We have these fat cat politicians in Macquarie Street giving themselves pay rises, we have managers on half a million dollars a year saying we should be grateful for a pay cut”, Damian said to cries of “shame!” from the gathered crowd.
Rank-and-file drivers and guards spoke about the need for more action. “We need strikes that really disrupt things, twelve or 24 hours”, one young guard said. Her friend, a new driver, agreed. “Who cares if Fair Work rules against us again? These laws are designed to disarm unions and we have to be prepared to break them” he said, referring to a 2018 decision that outlawed the union’s planned 24-hour strike, citing the damage it would do to the NSW economy.
Back then, the union officials conceded to Fair Work and cancelled the strike. Workers, by a slim majority, begrudgingly voted to accept an offer well below the union’s demands. So far in this campaign, Fair Work hasn’t ruled against any of the union’s actions, but many worry that it is only a matter of time.
At the Central rally, there was a welcome display of solidarity from the public. Sydney University students passed motions in their student union to support the RTBU strike, as did unionised teachers from one school, who sent a representative to speak at the rally.
The eight-hour strike gave railway workers a sense of power and momentum in what has already been a long campaign. It was clear from the energy that workers are prepared to do whatever it takes to win our demands against the arrogant NSW government.