Sydney’s proposed 24-hour rail strike has been ruled illegal in a snap hearing of the “Fair Work Commission”. The decision exposes how far the law is now stacked against strike action.

The 29 January strike, as well as the rail workers’ overtime bans, were held to threaten to economically damage the NSW economy and to “endanger the welfare” of the population by shutting down train services. Under the so-called “Fair Work Act”, this is enough to declare a strike illegal.

This means that it is effectively illegal for rail workers ever to take strike action. Any train strike would impose “economic damage” on employers, by making it harder for people to get to work. Hitting the bosses’ profits is the whole point of going on strike and taking industrial action.

Sadly, the RTBU officials immediately agreed to accept the ruling. Secretary Alex Claassens meekly conceded, saying, “We’ve always followed the rules and we will continue to do that”. A deal to settle the dispute will be put to a rail delegates’ meeting.

Industrial action has been banned for six weeks. But there is nothing to stop the NSW government going back to court again and having any future strike action declared illegal, just as they did when Sydney bus drivers fought privatisation.

When Sally McManus became ACTU Secretary she declared that unjust laws needed to be broken. But the welcome words have not been followed up with any action.
We need mass meetings of workers in NSW and every state to back the rail workers. If Unions NSW and the ACTU got behind the rail workers, they could break the law and win. They could break the NSW wage cap and set the scene for a union fightback that really would change the rules.

Last year construction unions defied the law, staging two unlawful nation-wide stopwork rallies against the federal Liberal government’s introduction of the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). They have not been fined.

Unless unions are prepared to defy the law, workers are going to keep getting clobbered. Without the right to strike, the RTBU has no real bargaining power.

All unions are threatened by this Fair Work decision. We can’t wait for the next Labor government to “change the rules.”

It will only be a union industrial campaign that will break the shackles of the Fair Work Act and win back the right to strike.


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