Huge and True: NSW Trains Rides Are Free Until November 25

Yet another major skirmish has concluded in the seven-year war between the NSW Government and the Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union (RTBU). This is because the NSW Government has made all of the state’s train trips free from November 21 until November 25.

When making this announcement, the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, said, “Sydney commuters deserve nothing less.”

However, to understand why the NSW Government made this call and what the RTBU has to do with it, we have to go back to September 13.

September 13: The First Strike

On September 13, the RTBU voiced that they were displeased with how much the NSW Government paid its train staff and the safety standards on some locomotives. To commutate how unsatisfied they were, the union tried to go directly for the NSW Government’s pockets.

The RTBU wanted to do this by turning off all the train Opal card readers throughout this state. 

“On Sunday night, we notified Sydney Trains and NSW Trains of new industrial actions that will commence from 21 September 2022 and continue indefinitely,” wrote the RTBU’s Secretary, Alex Claassens, in a now-deleted letter to his other members.

“The major action we notified is an action that allows us to deactivate the Opal readers and gates. This will allow commuters to travel around the network for free. If there is no way to tap on or off, then they cannot be fined.”

Additionally, the union’s Transport Officers planned not to give out any fines and cautions from this date onwards. 

“We need to make sure that all gates get switched off and stay off,” stated Claassens. “If anyone comes to your station to switch the opal readers back on, please let us know immediately as this may constitute adverse action.”

September 17: The NSW Government Response

Unsurprisingly, the government weren’t happy chappies with this news. As per The Sydney Morning Herald, David Elliott, the NSW’s Transport Minister, came out of the gate swinging.

“The latest round of action by Alex Claassens and the RTBU, which will see them deliberately delaying work to functioning Opal machines so that they become inoperative, is akin to economic sabotage,” exclaimed Elliott. 

Furthermore, around midnight on September 17, the NSW Government went for the kill. At 12:16 AM, the government’s lawyers told the RTBU that if any of the state’s Opal gates were to be switched off, then they’d take the union to court. These lawyers said that this piece of industrial action couldn’t proceed because it wasn’t approved by all of the RTBU’s members.

September 20: The Union’s New Timeline

The RTBU has asserted that its original actions were all above board. Nevertheless, they’ve also said that they didn’t want to go to court over this issue. They stated that such a battle in the court of law could “put at risk everything we’ve won so far.”

They later noted, “The action of turning off the opal machines will now not go ahead on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, on September 20, the RTBU wrote to its members, “We are absolutely still committed to taking this action, just on a slightly amended timeline.”

Therefore, the battle was back on. 

But how did the RTBU fight back? Well, they went to the Fair Work Commission to get a Protected Action Ballot Order (PAB). This ballot made it so the RTBU members could vote on if they’d switch off the train Opal card gates in an airtight manner.

“Once this ballot gets up, our fight continues,” declared the RTBU. 

On September 26, the RTBU confirmed that they received their PAB from the Fair Work Commission. This ballot opened on October 5 and closed on October 12.

Moreover, the union was rather excited when their PAB became active. “Voting in the latest Protected Action Ballot is now OPEN,” wrote the RTBU to its members on October 5. “All members should vote YES.”

“Once the PAB is successful, our Opal Gate action will be protected industrial action,” the union explained. “Meaning that it could be an adverse action if the government or Sydney and NSW Trains interfere with the action or threaten RTBU members in any way for taking part in it.” 

October 13: Did the RTBU’s Vote Pass?

On October 13, the RTBU announced the results of the PAB. According to the union, 97% of its members voted in favour of switching off NSW’s Opal card readers.

The RTBU classified this decision as a success. In a statement, they said, “Through all the curveballs thrown at us, our union remains united and is ready to take this action.

On October 14, delegates for the RTBU decided when the union would turn off NSW’s card readers. They determined that this piece of industrial action should start on October 20 and continue indefinitely.

These delegates also decided that the union would only switch off Opal card gates, not Opal card poles. Moreover, they wanted these protests to only take place each weekday afternoon from 3:00pm until 7:00pm.

However, it’s worth noting that the RTBU knew that its plan might not happen.

As the union said, “We think it is important for members to be aware that we are mindful that the NSW Government may still attempt to apply for an injunction in the Federal Court over this action.”

“This is despite our efforts to make sure this action is above board by voting in a new PAB. We do not know if it is a real threat yet, but we need to be ready for the possibility.”

Related: Transport for NSW, Stop Stealing My Money

Related: Here’s a List of all NSW Trains’ Planned Strikes

October 13 & 19: The Government Responds Again

On October 13, the NSW Government and Elliott voiced their displeasure with the RTBU’s plan to switch off Opal card readers.

“The Opal card readers are taxpayer assets,” said Elliott, “and the unions interfering with wiring and switches to turn them off is both unsafe and ridiculous.”

Moreover, on October 19, the NSW Government said that they’d take the RTBU to court. Elliott announced that if the union’s gate plan were to occur, he wants the union to be fined a splash of money equal to the amount that the government loses out on.

“It is a fundamental right of a government and a fundamental right of taxpayers to expect their government to receive revenues when it comes to public transport,” he said.

“This action will make sure the taxpayers don’t forfeit revenues they are entitled to receive.”

Important note: The RTBU’s protest wouldn’t have messed with the Opal gates’ wiring. The union would have instead used each station’s red emergency buttons to switch these machines off. This is unlike what Elliot claimed in mid-October.

October 20: The Day the Gates Didn’t Fall

On October 19, the RTBU said that they called off its Opal gate action in the wake of the NSW Government suing them. 

In what is probably a first in the history of Australia, the NSW Government decided to actively sue its own workforce,” said the union.

“It is bitterly disappointing we have had to pause tomorrow’s planned action which would have delivered free travel for commuters, but we have been left with no choice.”

Additionally, the RTBU has said that if the NSW’s court order is successful, it would do more than force them to pay the government a whack of money. It could also prevent them from ever turning off NSW’s Opal readers again.

“The government has invested serious time and (taxpayer-funded) resources into preparing this application, and it potentially has very serious consequences for our Union. It is something that needs to be taken very seriously,” said the RTBU in a statement. 

However, the RTBU didn’t call it quits. They have said they are still committed to this seven-year war.

The RTBU made an application to the Federal Court for its hearing with the NSW Government to be expedited. The union wanted this court to answer the question: Can they turn off NSW’s Opal gates without being financially liable? They wanted this question answered quickly, once and for all.

October 26: Another Nail in the 2022 Coffin

On October 26, the RTBU confirmed that the Federal Court wouldn’t expedite its hearing against the NSW Government. 

“The application to expedite the case was supported by the government. Unfortunately, yesterday afternoon, the Court ruled that the case will not be expedited and therefore will not be heard until February or March 2023,” said the union in a letter to its members.

“We are disappointed with the Federal Court’s decision not to expedite an urgent hearing on our proposed industrial action to give commuters free travel as we believe it is in the best interests of our hardworking frontline members and the community to have this question resolved as soon as possible.”

In this letter, the RTBU stated they planned to conduct other pieces of industrial action in the wake of not being able to turn off the Opal gates.

“Regardless, it is clear that the only option is to return to the well-trodden path of disruptive industrial action,” said the RTBU.

“Thank you to the members who have been in contact with their delegates regarding actions for the November calendar. We will have this finalised for members by this weekend.”

November 1 — November 18: The Protests Begin

At the beginning of November, the RTBU kept to their word. If they couldn’t provide NSW’s train commuters free trips, they were going to conduct a series of protests. 

These protests included things like not attending meetings, not cleaning stations, and not using certain types of trains. 

On November 21 and 25, two of the month’s biggest train strikes would have taken place. This is because the RTBU was going to refuse to drive 4GT trains on these dates, which would’ve taken a lot of trains out of commission. Everywhere from the T3 Bankstown line to the T7 Olympic Park line would’ve been affected. 

However, the RTBU provided a caveat that would make these strikes go away. As the RTBU said; “During this round of action, we have included a choice for the government. They can give commuters free fares after providing a minimum of 24 hours’ notice to the union, and action will be paused for the duration that fares are free for passengers.”

November 18: The Government Backs Down

A few days before a massive train strike was going to hit the NSW train lines, the NSW Government made every train trip across the state free. They did this in the hopes that the RTBU would keep their promise and call off said strike.

As Perrottet said, “People need to get to work, go to school and go about their normal day without being disrupted by union strike action.”

Furthermore, as previously noted, these free train rides were to last the entire workweek.   

So, what did the RTBU do after learning that the NSW Government was switching off the Opal gates? Well, they cancelled their strike and were very chuffed with this result.

On November 18, the RTBU said, “RTBU members have today forced the government to provide commuters with free travel for a week. This month of action came off the back of the Government taking us to Court in our effort to provide free fares to commuters through turning off the opal gates. Today we have achieved that outcome.”

“This outcome costs the Government coffers, wins goodwill, and doesn’t cost us a thing. We remain committed to focusing our industrial action on the real enemy here, and not on commuters who continue to suffer from the Government’s transport bungles.”

Why the Heck Did This War Happen in the First Place?

To make a long and dramatic saga short, the RTBU wants the NSW public transport system to be safer. Back in 2015, the government bought some vehicles from South Korea. They were dubbed the New Intercity Fleet. The government also wants to use these trains without a guard onboard. 

The fact that this fleet wouldn’t have a train guard concerned the RTBU. This is because a whack of people fall between the tracks each year and it’s the guard’s job to help them out. 

Ergo, the RTBU wants the New Intercity Fleet to use guards so the service will be lower in risk. This organisation hasn’t backed down on this issue and has been fighting with the government over what should happen for the past seven years. 

Earlier in 2022, the RTBU launched a series of strikes to voice their frustration with said situation. These bits and bobs of industrial action were also done to try and force the NSW Government to yield. 

While switching off the Opal card gates plan went ahead, it’s just a single weapon that the RTBU used in this seven-year long war. Additionally, it isn’t the last one that’s up the union’s sleeve.

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