OPINION: The Fair Work Commission’s decision to ban a strike by rail workers in NSW on Monday is a watershed moment in Australia’s industrial history and strikes at the heart of workers' rights. Without the right to strike, the balance of power tips dangerously in favour of employers.
The backdrop to this power struggle between the NSW Government, Sydney Trains and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) is the fact that wage growth is stagnating, the cost of living is rising and the casualization of the workforce is increasing. Given these conditions, workers need greater protections and their labour rights, including the right to strike, should be preserved.
On Thursday, the Fair Work Commission ruled RTBU had to cease all industrial action for six weeks. After similar anti-worker decisions such as cutting penalty rates a year ago, more and more power is ceded to employers. It is clearer than ever that now is the time to change the rules.
The commission ruling was based on a section of the Fair Work Act that considers if the disputed industrial action will cause economic or social harm to the public. On the basis of that provision, the ruling is justified. But the provision is broad and could conceivably be applied to find economic and social harm in any strike. After all, the nature of a strike is to bring disruption to bear in order in to impact negotiations with employers. It follows that the Fair Work Commission could ban a strike for achieving the strike’s purpose - to cause harm to the employer; and when it is a public service such as trains, the public as well. That the ruling could be reached despite weeks of failed negotiations is worrying. Even if you follow the rules, it seems, you still aren’t afforded the right to strike.
That means that nearly half of the services run on any given day rely on overtime. It is not fair, or smart, to force people to work overtime to meet the day to day running of services.
If a strike can be banned because the service the workers provide is essential to the public, then surely those workers deserve to work in adequate conditions and with a pay reflective of that essential service. Instead, conservative rhetoric has been about union bosses and greedy workers which can sway public opinion. A train strike is never going to be popular with commuters and, therefore, the rights and conditions rail workers are fighting for need to be carefully explained and not lost in the political spin.
Critically, the ban on industrial action includes a ban on refusing to work overtime. On Thursday, when a scheduled overtime ban commenced, Sydney Trains cancelled 1300 of the normal 2900 services that run each week day. That means that nearly half of the services run on any given day rely on overtime. It is not fair, or smart, to force people to work overtime to meet the day to day running of services.
The right to withdraw labour is the most powerful tool that a worker possesses, and to take it away is to take away a fundamental bargaining power that keeps the unstable balance between worker and employer intact. It’s time to change the rules.