Sydney train strikes: NSW government’s last-minute bid to postpone union case rejected

The Fair Work Commission has rejected a last-minute application by the New South Wales government to postpone a hearing and enter conciliation in its long-running dispute with rail unions.

The application had came after the government on Tuesday argued against conciliation. On Friday the commission’s deputy president, Bryce Cross, said the case “has some urgency to it” as he rejected the proposed adjournment.

The government last week threatened to terminate an existing enterprise agreement for rail workers, prompting the union’s appeal to the commission to keep it at the negotiating table.

Lawyers representing the government’s train agencies opposed conciliation on Tuesday and had the matter adjourned until Friday so it could gather its evidence.

They argued on Friday it beggared belief the commission would not approve its application after earlier encouraging conciliation, but Cross did not agree.

“I don’t think that’s a very accurate recollection of history,” Cross said.

“The initial response [to conciliation] from respondents was ‘no’, on more than one occasion, and now we’re at the commencement of the hearing,” he said.

Unions have been negotiating with the government for months over a new enterprise agreement for rail workers, after the current one expired in May last year.

But a major sticking point for the government remains the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s insistence on modifications for a Korean-built fleet of new intercity trains. The union argues the trains are not yet safe to operate on the NSW rail network.

Modifying the trains to allow guards to monitor platforms on approach and departure would ensure safety, the union says, and save about 450 jobs.

The union took industrial action throughout August with targeted strikes, which included station gates being left open, bans on fines and crews refusing to operate foreign-built trains that comprise most of the network, causing delays for commuters for several days.

Government rail agencies have agreed not to proceed with a new enterprise agreement or apply to terminate the current one until the commission matter is decided.

The union’s application last week came a day before the federal employment minister, Tony Burke, wrote to the commission about the Labor government’s intention to change the law to limit an employer’s ability to terminate enterprise agreements.

Burke says his letter didn’t mention the Sydney trains dispute and stemmed from the Albanese government’s jobs summit.

But the premier, Dominic Perrottet, slammed its timing, coming after his government threatened to tear up the enterprise agreement unless the union stopped striking and accepted the government’s terms.

Another commission hearing is currently scheduled for next Wednesday.