Sydney bus drivers go on strike

“That’s how capitalism works, isn’t? Divide and conquer”, says a bus driver, one of hundreds taking part in a 24-hour strike at Sydney’s inner west depots on 6 December.

She’s referring to the deeply unfair, two-tiered contracts introduced by bus operator Transit Systems after the New South Wales government privatised the depots two and a half years ago. Transit Systems was forced to keep existing drivers on the old award but was allowed to put all new drivers on much worse conditions.

“Legacy” drivers, hired before the privatisation, remain in the Rail Tram and Bus Union and on better wages and conditions. New drivers, called “the 900s” in reference to the beginning of their staff ID numbers, can join only the Transport Workers’ Union, meaning that the workforce is arbitrarily split between two different transport unions.

Transit Systems created the new award to undermine workplace conditions and create a cheaper workforce. New drivers get paid less per hour, their breaks are shorter, their shifts are longer, they get four weeks annual leave instead of five, and all their penalty rates are lower.

The results have been extremely demoralising and divided the workplace. “It’s been terrible for morale”, says a legacy driver. He blames management: “They have created the divide and they’re perpetuating it”.

A group of seven TWU members explain what it’s like being second-class workers. “We drive the same buses, do the same work, use the same facilities, but we are treated differently”, one says.

“We have no life outside work”, he continues, explaining his three-hour commute to work thirteen-hour split shifts.

“Some of us are half asleep while driving, it’s not safe”, another man says. They all begin to interject, airing their grievances about the job.

Talk about the strike immediately lightens the mood.

“We really appreciate the solidarity—they’re fighting for us”, one says, referring to the RTBU members, the legacy drivers, who have finished their negotiations and secured a small pay rise, but are out on strike to bring the conditions of the 900s up to par with their own.

RTBU members seem to be a majority on the picket line, all wearing bright red shirts that read “union and proud”.

“It feels great to fight for the TWU members”, says an RTBU driver, smiling, “but this is also about defending our own jobs”. A large group of RTBU members gather to talk about how badly they’re being treated by management.

One tells a story about the general manager of Transit Systems, who reportedly had the gall to tell them they cost too much, and that he hoped that through “natural attrition” they’ll all be gone soon.

“There’s nothing natural about it”, says one woman angrily. “We’re being pushed out.” They all nod in agreement; the legacy drivers are the first to have their shifts cut, and management makes their lives as difficult as possible.

What Transit Systems and the NSW government have gotten away with sets a terrible precedent. There are more bus privatisations in the offing, including in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Private and state operators alike are trying to erode working conditions that were hard won over decades.

“This isn’t just about us”, says an RTBU member. “This is a fight for all the workers facing similar issues.”

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