Libcom.org Aug 27 2009
A six-hour strike by 130 bus drivers in western Sydney on Monday morning,
carried out in defiance of their union, has produced furious denunciations
in the media and from an industrial court judge. The drivers walked out at
the Busways Blacktown depot at 3.30 a.m. against the imposition of new
timetables that would impose shorter times for routes.
Drivers said that the timetables, due to commence in October, would be
impossible to meet, forcing them to run late, which would not only
inconvenience and anger passengers but cut short the drivers' break
periods. The workers said they would be under enormous pressure to drive
over the speed limit.
Months of trade union talks with the company have failed to halt the
onerous new conditions. Angered by the lack of support from the Transport
Workers Union (TWU), the drivers conducted their own stoppage, giving no
warning to the union or management. The TWU opposed the strike and
intervened to end it as quickly as possible.
Drivers said the timetables would add to Sydney's public transport
shambles, which has seen the state Labor government in New South Wales cut
the frequency of rail services and scrap plans to extend the rail network
to new outlying suburbs. In many outer western and southern suburbs, the
so-called public transport system depends almost entirely on heavily
government-subsidised private bus companies.
The Busways Group is a large private operator, holding lucrative state
government contracts to run more than 600 buses, and employ more than 700
drivers, on approximately 100 routes in the Sydney and New South Wales
Central Coast regions, and around 30 more in the state's mid-North Coast
Like employers across the board, Busways is utilising the economic crisis,
with the backing of the state government, to demand a productivity
speed-up. With unemployment continuing to rise throughout Sydney's
western, working class suburbs, the company is actively recruiting drivers
willing to accept the new conditions.
The mass media launched a scathing attack on the drivers for halting
services from the depot during the morning peak period, claiming that
their actions had seriously disrupted and traumatised commuters, as well
as school children and parents. As drivers pointed out, this was sheer
hypocrisy as passengers were frequently left stranded by delays caused by
the existing, already over-stretched timetables.
What really provoked the media's wrath was that the drivers had defied the
TWU and taken matters into their own hands. The tabloid Daily Telegraph
labeled them "rogue drivers" who had acted "without consulting any
official of the Transport Workers Union". An editorial declared that a
"bolshie minority" had staged a "wildcat strike" because their "tempers
led them to ignore even the instructions from their own union".
In the state Industrial Relations Commission, Justice Frank Marks accused
the drivers of "industrial thuggery of the worst kind ... in the face of
opposition from their elected delegate and without consulting any paid TWU
official". The judge ordered the TWU and its members not to take any
further industrial action over the timetable.
The response betrays considerable nervousness on the part of the official
establishment that the drivers could set an example that would encourage
other sections of workers to defy the trade unions and take independent
action to defend their jobs and conditions. Over the past three decades,
the unions have been the essential instrument in sabotaging any resistance
by the working class to the pro-market agenda imposed by successive
Coalition and Labor governments on behalf of big business.
During the past year, as the global recession has deepened, the TWU and
its counterparts throughout the union movement have worked hand in hand
with the Rudd Labor government to help companies large and small impose
far-reaching cuts to jobs, working hours and conditions.
The reaction to a relatively small wildcat strike by Busways drivers
reveals just how reliant governments and big business are on the unions.
The reference to "bolshie" workers—that is, drawing a parallel between the
Busways drivers and the Bolsheviks who took power in Russia in
1917—reveals the growing concerns within ruling circles over the
consequences of sharpening social tensions produced by worsening
unemployment and deteriorating living standards.
Like other sections of the working class, private bus drivers have been
forced to sacrifice pay and conditions. After years of TWU complicity in
the introduction of "flexible" conditions, drivers now receive virtually
no penalty rates, regardless of how early, late or broken their shifts.
Despite the intense pressure of constantly driving in heavy traffic, and
being responsible for the safety of thousands of passengers daily, they
are paid base rates of just $50,000 or so a year.
By contrast, the Rowe family, which owns the Busways Group, is thought to
be one of the wealthiest in Australia. The extent of its profits, and the
government subsidies it receives, is shrouded in secrecy.
Although the Busways management has now agreed to further talks on the
proposed timetables, and despite judge Marks's no-strike order, drivers
said they would strike again unless the company dropped its demands. The
TWU, on the other hand, has worked to isolate the Blacktown depot drivers,
even from the workers at the company's 15 other depots, let alone other
bus drivers and transport workers, all of whom face similar attacks.
One driver, who has worked for Busways for 10 years, said: "We acted out
of frustration after 10 years of fighting oppressive and deficient
timetables. The new timetables will be a nightmare. The TWU did not
condone the strike, and said we could be fined $50,000. It's like a
"The union is useless, and there's nowhere for drivers to go. The
government pays the private bus companies by contracts and it wants us to
be slaves—it doesn't want us to be paid better.
"I am very dubious toward the union and I am disillusioned by all
governments—like most people. Every time, we vote governments out, rather
than vote anyone in. The Liberals screw us one way, and Labor does it
"There are drivers who have been here for 20 years and it's the same
problem. The company gives us routes that take 40 minutes, and allows us
only 35 minutes. I have one long run now from Blacktown to Riverstone
where I am often 20 minutes late. The best I have ever done is 10 minutes
The driver condemned the remarks of Judge Marks, calling them "biased and
fascist". He also answered the judge's claim that the new timetables were
required to match planned reduced train services.
"We are trying to do something about it—to stop the public transport
chaos. The new timetables have nothing to do with the new train
timetables; the government is also introducing new bus routes. The length
of time we are given to drive the routes is not related to the train
"We are fed up. We have been through the system to try to get changes and
nothing ever happens. We can't get the union to do anything about
anything. The purpose of unions was supposed to be to increase conditions,
not decrease them."
Another driver, who has worked for the company for five years, was bitter
about the TWU's role. "The union blamed the workers for going on strike.
We decided that we couldn't wait for the union. The union is only worried
about the $60 a month we pay in dues.
"The new timetable means less time to complete our routes. We will run
late and be blamed by the public. Because we'll run late, there'll also be
less break time."
A Busways mechanic voiced support for the drivers' action. "Everyone has
the right to express their grievances, or it's not a free country. When I
get called out for bus repairs, I see the pressure the drivers are under.
It's bad enough to be under pressure from the public, without being under
pressure from the company as well."