Perth train drivers take strike action

More than 50 Perth train drivers took unprotected industrial action on September 24, taking leave or phoning in sick in the morning. More reported sick in the afternoon. It was the second time in a month that the train drivers initiated a “blue flu”.

The action came as their case for a pay rise was before the Industrial Relations Commission. The drivers resorted to the action out of sheer frustration as negotiations over a new  collective agreement between the Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) and the Perth Transit Authority (PTA) had reached a stalemate. The PTA rejected a 6% pay rise the train drivers were seeking.

Many drivers were reported in the media as being disgruntled with the leadership of their union, taking the industrial action independently. The ABC interviewed one driver who said of the train drivers’ action: “It’s a matter of not being able to pay their bills, to make ends meet and having to do overtime each week to be able to financially support their family. At every turn and every part of negotiation we are blocked; we’re either blocked by the Public Transport Authority or we are blocked by our so-called union.”

Only one-third of trains were running, and they were jam-packed with commuters despite the PTA putting on extra carriages. Some services were cancelled, and most were reduced to a half-hourly schedule. Traffic in the city was almost gridlocked. Buses were completely packed. The Royal Show was to start the next day.

An emergency session of the Industrial Relations Court was held, and the RTBU reached a settlement with the PTA. The IRC ruled the drivers would get an interim increase of 5% of their existing base rate of pay while arbitration takes place and a new base rate is determined. The government had initially offered only 3.75% for the first year and 4% for the second.

The industrial action was led by rank-and-file members who had split from the RTBU after losing confidence in the union’s ability to represent them. In total, 240 out of 260 employees opted to be represented by a lawyer in the IRC rather than the RTBU officials. Whether the lawyer chosen by the drivers has the jurisdiction to represent them is still in question because he is not a registered bargaining agent.

Perth train drivers are the lowest paid drivers in the country despite living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The majority group of drivers are seeking a back payment of around $13,600 to bring them into line with CPI increases since 2006.