When the rules are broken: railway workers denied the right to strike

In June 2017, more than 7,000 union members working for the New South Wales railways started a new round of collective bargaining.

RTBU solidarity

Rail, Tram and Bus Union NSW members show solidarity on their union's facebook page during industrial action.

While historically collective bargaining in the public sector has often been lengthy and problematic, the 2017 bargaining round was not expected to be particularly complex.

Unfortunately, that was not to prove true, and, after more than six months of negotiations, union members overwhelmingly supported taking industrial action.

Australian industrial relations laws are extremely anti-worker, containing fundamental breaches of international labour standards and conventions. This includes a range of onerous legal requirements put upon unions.

Industrial action must be approved by the Fair Work Commission, and is subject to the burdensome provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009. Even once approved, it can be revoked by the Commission at any time.

After jumping through the many required hoops, NSW rail workers began industrial action in late January 2018.

In addition to the wearing of union badges and t-shirts, an indefinite overtime ban was implemented and notice provided for a 24-hour stoppage on 29 January 2018.

The employers applied to the Commission to stop the industrial action, on the grounds that the Fair Work Act 2009 allows employers to suspend or stop any action that could cause significant economic harm, or endanger the health and safety of members of the public.

The Commission ruled that a 24-hour strike would do both of these, and suspended all industrial action for six weeks. Despite doing everything asked by unfair labour laws, public sector railway workers had their right to strike taken away.

Union members are now forced to continue bargaining without the leverage of industrial action, which may be suspended again after the initial six-week period. It is clear that the Australian industrial relations laws are rigged in such a way that bosses have all of the power, and are even able to prevent union members taking working together effectively to improve their wages and working conditions.

A drastic shift, in both legislation and attitudes towards economic and power imbalances, is desperately needed.

By Jessica Epps (RTBU Industrial Officer)