Ballot bates bus blue


Better safety training, more driver-operator dialogue, and a 4 percent wage claim – ingredients for a bus barney that could see much of Sydney’s bus fleet off the road by Christmas

Ballot bates bus blue
Ballot bates bus blue

By David Goeldner | November 24, 2010

The scene is set for a potential Christmas crisis in public bus transport with the NSW branch of the Transport Workers Union at loggerheads with four of Sydney’s largest private bus operators over an enterprise agreement package.

The TWU is pushing ahead with a ballot of Sydney bus drivers to take industrial action if claims for a 4 percent wage rise along with a host of demands around better consultation practices and driver-initiated safety training are not met.

The protected action ballot organised by the Australian Electoral Commission closes on 13 December, and if agreed to by drivers means buses could be off the road, or fare free days enacted from the following Thursday.

The four operators affected by the industrial action are Hills Bus and West Bus, under Comfort Delgro Cabcharge, Busways, Premier Illawarra, and Veolia, all of which TWU senior organiser Michael Aird says have failed to agree to the enterprise bargaining package.

Aird says the package, including the 4 percent wage rise, is fair and reasonable: "The position we have put is conservative in terms of the pay claim."

But BusNSW Executive Director Darryl Mellish says the reality is quite different.

"We are reasonably confident that the bargaining will produce an outcome, although it is difficult to move above 3 percent because of funding from our government contacts," Mellish says.

"We are still hopeful at the industry level that we can reach some agreement, however we do want a better understanding from the NSW Government about industrial risks under our future contract."

Mellish says the union has overlooked the reality of how driver’s wages are funded through the contract system, which is inadequate in terms of long term planning for wage rises.

"These metropolitan contracts have only got 12 months to run and we are attempting to negotiate an enterprise agreement for three years," he says, which would add more certainty to wage claims.

"There is significant risk on the operator (through this short time frame) and we are trying to seek further clarification of how wage costs will be indexed under future contracts because the current contracts do not properly index wages."

Mellish says this situation has existed since 2005.

"The amount of money the operator receives for paying wages is tied partly to a labour price index and partly to the CPI, so the impact of those two models is that the operators don’t receive wage increases in line with the Australian industry average."

He believes the TWU is using comparisons with the STA as an argument in the media to seek the extra government support.

"STA’s increase was 2.5 percent plus 0.5 percent productivity adjustment, so the 3 percent we have offered is equal to or better than the 3 percent the STA has offered because we haven’t insisted on productivity offsets," says Mellish.

"And the contracts that operators are paid have a limit on the amount they receive for drivers’ wages – that amount has been passed on to the drivers."

BusNSW is the official bargaining agent for the four operators, and have been in negotiation since the Enterprise Agreement was lodged by the TWU in August.

Since that time, Mellish says there hasn’t been adequate opportunity to negotiate by virtue of too few meetings now that protected industrial action has been launched by the TWU.

"We received from the TWU on 31 August their draft enterprise agreement and since then there’s been two substantive meetings with each of the four operators," he says.

"Our position has been that filing for protected action was premature because we only had two meetings and the bargaining and the negotiating was going – we thought – quite well."

But Aird says negotiations have broken down.

"We have had a long history in NSW of reaching industry-wide settlement, but those negotiations did break down," he says.

"A protected action ballot is a step we have taken reluctantly and we’ve had no alternative given the state of the negotiations, but there’s still an opportunity for an agreement to be struck, even after the ballot is approved."

Aird says the ball is now in the court of the companies involved: "They have an opportunity to review their position."

A spark which continues to keep the flame burning is the TWU’s view that drivers have little say when it comes to important company decisions affecting employment and conditions, and have called for the creation of driver-based consultative committees at each work site.

Aird refers to the Fair Work Act saying it is compulsory to have a consultative clause in a Fair Work agreement.

"What we seek as a minimum is that they come and talk to us as soon a practicable before a major decision affecting employees is made."

An example of a ‘major decision’ is a depot closure.

"Sometimes change is forced on a company and they may not have much chance to have consultation to make an immediate change, but when there is a strong relationship with drivers then they should come and talk to us," says Aird.

Mellish says the TWU’s proposal to form consultative committees would be a duplication of effort – and therefore remains a ‘sticking’ point in the bargaining process.

"We think there needs to be sensible consultation with drivers on matters that affect operations and driving, and most operators have that sort of effective consultation in place," he says.

"You’ve already got union involvement in OH&S committees and a whole range of consultation that already exists, such as timetabling committees."

Mellish says that while setting up another committee could be a duplication of effort, an understanding has been reached with the TWU that BusNSW and the operators are not opposed to consulting.

"But it needs to be done effectively and not cut across the formal systems that are already in place."

Driver safety training is also at stake, given the growing number of serious assault on the Sydney bus network over the past year.

Aird is seeking more comprehensive training arrangements particularly when dealing with ‘unruly’ or ‘violent’ passengers, along with broader training arrangements.

He believes drivers should provide input into the implementation of training programs, seeking a more ‘bottom up’ approach than having a purely top down management directed training regime.

"This is based on a survey of drivers who say that current training arrangements are inadequate," says Aird.

"This needs to be built into the agreement."

Mellish says the operators are meeting their training requirements in current contracts and BusNSW has offered to develop an industry training program with the union.

"We believe there are effective training regimes in place and we’ve offered to the union that if they believe there are gaps to sit down with them and indentify the gaps," he says.

Mellish says the TWU has accepted this approach, but only in recent days and after they filed the protected action.

"I think the TWU are reserving the right to take strike action and not actually do it, and by putting pressure on public transport they may get support from the NSW Government to fund their wage increase."

But missing from the discussion so far, according to Mellish, is BusNSW and operator support for the driver pool.

"We really do appreciate the value and importance of our drivers and we do understand the difficult role they undertake," he says.

"They are the first point of contact for our passengers and we really do believe that they should have reasonable wages and conditions, and that’s what we’ve based our offer on."

The next BusNSW brokering meeting will be on Tuesday with the TWU and Comfort Delgro Cabcharge, one of the four major operators subject to the industrial action.

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