It’s midnight, Friday 27 November. The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) is quietly gathering its forces at NSW Trains depots at Sydney, Gosford, Newcastle, Mt Victoria, Lithgow and Wollongong, in preparation for a snap strike.
The previous day, NSW Trains management had refused the union’s demand to cancel its “mission readiness” test run of its new intercity fleet, scheduled to run at 8am the following day. The intercity fleet has been designed for the express purpose of reducing the role of the train guard to almost nothing, cutting back wages, threatening jobs and risking the safety of the public in the process.
An independent safety assessment conducted on behalf of the RTBU concluded that this driver only operating model is unsafe, contrary to NSW Train’s safety assessment. The company’s assessment, done by a safety expert who must have also been a clairvoyant, found that the driver only model was not only safe, but safer than the current model, all without the expert setting foot on a relevant train or even being in the country due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The union issued an ultimatum: if NSW Trains did not cancel “mission readiness” by 1pm on Thursday 26 November, the workers would cancel it for them. Having heard no response by the deadline, the union instructed the mostly unionised test crew to refuse all duties related to “mission readiness”. NSW Trains lined up a non-union test crew and assumed they were in the clear. “Mission readiness” would go on, and the union would have no choice but to sit and watch. Or so they thought.
Friday morning at the depots, and one by one, drivers and guards arrive to sign on, only to immediately join the pickets. There has not been a 24-hour snap strike like this since 1998, but rail workers are eager to take action and defy both the law and management.
One of the reasons railway workers are so eager to take action is the demoralising result of the 2018 enterprise agreement, where the union officials capitulated to a ruling by the Fair Work Commission which effectively denied the right of the workers to strike. This saw the workforce, amidst an atmosphere of demoralisation and disappointment, vote in favour of a 3 percent pay rise rather than the 6 percent they were prepared to fight for. Train drivers have long memories, and many on the pickets can recall the rise and fall of hope, as strikes were declared and quickly called off last time around. This round will likewise not soon be forgotten.
Managers are pacing up and down the platforms. Completely impotent in the face of the workers’ power to shut down the network, they cave under the pressure in a mere four and a half hours. The snap strike saw only five scabs cross picket lines across the state’s intercity network. Management agreed to cancel “mission readiness”, to meet with the union to “address safety concerns” and to provide an amnesty to the strikers.
The battle to stop the driver only model is far from over. Until the government commits to retaining a fully qualified train guard on board all trains, its platitudes about safety issues will remain hollow. This strike has forced management to take the union’s demands seriously, but to keep our railways safe, further strikes will be needed.
What is not lost on the rank and file is the immense boost of morale and union engagement that the illegal strike and its swift victory has provided. The lessons of both 2018 and 27 November 2020 show that a fight against rail bosses is also a fight against the broken industrial laws of the Fair Work Commission, and that to win any serious dispute, it is necessary to defy these bosses’ courts.
In an era of COVID-19 and recession, a legalistic strategy is doomed to fail. The union will need to be prepared to defy the Fair Work Commission to win this dispute, and others, in the long run.