Sunbus back, TransLink threat passes

Sunbus services resumed at a reduced scale this week after TransLink retracted a contract payment ‘threat’

Sunbus back, TransLink threat passes
Sunbus back, TransLink threat passes

By David Goeldner | August 19, 2011

Transit Australia Group’s Sunbus operation on the Sunshine Coast lurched back into action this week, but after TransLink withdrew a threat to withhold contract payments while the Transport Workers Union continued overtime bans.

Not only had the TWU caused some continuing grief for the Queensland-based operator this week, but TAG was also subjected to a ‘threat’ of suspended service payments by TransLink.

TAG Managing Director Wayne Patch says TransLink had threatened to withdraw contract payments while the Maroochydore depot remained closed – deemed a potential breach by TransLink of contract law.

Patch says the ‘threat’ did not account for the required level of payment to maintain the fleet, depot facilities and ongoing costs to the operation, regardless of the service running to schedule.

"We received notice late last week that TransLink was going to suspend payments till services were provided under the contract," Patch says.

"We responded suggesting that TransLink were in breach of contract and that we would seek interlocutory relief in the Supreme Court if need be, because there are a range of services to be provided on the TransLink contract – scheduled passenger services is just one of them," he says.

Patch met with TransLink and the Queensland Government on Monday and came to an arrangement whereby the minimum service levels of the contract have been varied so that Sunbus can run Saturday timetables without the need for overtime.

"We can guarantee a Saturday timetable, but it’s a shame TransLink took this provocative action," he says.

"We’ve now come to an arrangement where payments under the contract will be continued."

With TAG’s TransLink payments resumed, and driver’s pay returned to normal without overtime, Sunshine Coast passengers are now experiencing a slight reduction in service levels.

Patch also took the unusual step this week of placing a public notice in Sunshine Coast print media, countersigned by TAG Executive Luke Gray, explaining that wage negotiations with drivers through the TWU ‘have failed’ and that services would continue based on running Saturday timetables through the week.

Patch says the level of continuing service is at about 85 percent of capacity due to the ‘risk’ associated with running a full service if drivers engaged in the TWU’s overtime bans were unable to work shifts.

Sunbus usually run 122 shifts each week day and about 90 shifts on Saturdays.

Patch says any driver turning up will get a shift.

"But we can’t provide a service if there is a stop work meeting, so as soon as drivers make themselves available we put buses back on the road and advertise that to the public," he says.

"And drivers aren’t getting any overtime pay, so their incomes have been reduced and there is nothing the company can do about it."

Patch says the current arrangement is the best TAG can offer to mitigate ongoing problems caused by industrial action.

But even with the TransLink payment issue resolved, and a re-opening of the depot on Wednesday this week, the matter of getting full services back in operation is still unresolved.

"The only way out is to go to arbitration," says Patch.

"Everyone else in the world operates through a central umpire, and we are prepared to do it."

Patch says he is perplexed why the TWU won’t settle the matter through arbitration.

For arbitration to proceed, the TWU as the driver’s bargaining agent must agree to lodge a joint application with TAG, which Patch says the union has refused to do.

Patch says TAG – and neighbouring operator Veolia – has been caught up with industrial action due to unfortunate timing in that employee agreements fell due as the Fair Work Act started to take effect.

He says the TWU has taken advantage of a loophole that exists in the Fair Work Act.

"Under Fair Work Australia there is a great frustration and flaw in the Act," Patch says.

"The Fair Work Act only allows for arbitration when both bargaining agents agree, and it can’t be directed by a commissioner."

Patch says TAG has made application to Workplace Relations Minister Senator Evans to intervene given there is no likelihood of a negotiated outcome.

"We want him to intervene and suspend the protected action, and refer the matter to Fair Work Australia for arbitration."

To support the approach for intervention, TAG has received supporting documentation from the Sunshine Coast Regional Council and others.

"We’ve been imploring of the Queensland Government to make personal representations to the Minister to intervene, and that hasn’t happened yet," Patch says.

"We are disappointed with the delay in making such a decision – but we live in hope."

But there could be more strife ahead as other bus operators prepare to start enterprise bargaining.

While the Fair Work Act remains in its current form, the spread of industrial action to other operations appears highly likely.

"It can only happen when enterprise agreements come up for renewal," Patch says.

"The TWU can’t take this action when an EA is in place."

He says it’s coincidental that TAG and Veolia enterprise agreements fell due as union activity escalated around the perceived weakness in the legislation.

Patch expects concerted action will come from the TWU targeting other operators which don’t have enterprise agreements in place.

"The TWU is one of the industrial organisations that understand the loophole in the Fair Work Act and they are taking advantage of it," Patch says.

"I think it’s an unintended consequence of the legislation, I don’t think any Government would want to persecute the public, particularly in an industry that’s so important to the transport disadvantaged."

Patch also chairs the Australian Public Transport Industrial Association (APTIA) and will be making representation when the Act is reviewed in 2012 to close the loophole.

"We will be quite vocal in our representation," he says.

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