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RTBU in 1990s

The RTBU has survived privatisation, deregulation and down-sizing in the 1990s and has now started to expand in the new millenium.


The RTBU is one of the 17 large unions directly represented on the ACTU Executive, giving rail, tram and bus workers a direct voice at that level for the first time in decades.

The RTBU has consistently fought for the public sector at the national level during the 1990s, often standing against the tide of privatisation and contracting out of public services that has been promoted under the National Competition Policy since 1995. To Australia's shame, we now have the smallest public sector among the advanced industrial countries grouped in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Wages and Conditions

The RTBU blended its elected officers and professional industrial staff to form a unit which delivers for its membership. When the centralised wage system was replaced with a combination of Enterprise Bargaining and centralised 'Safety Net' adjustments, all unions were faced with a serious challenge to continue to improve the wages and working conditions of their members.

Whether it was Labor or conservative governments at the state level, the RTBU was the first union in four states to gain public sector enterprise bargain wage increases for members, ranging from 4.5% to 7.5% in 1993, and since then, the RTBU has remained in the forefront of public sector wage movements. Today, 95% of RTBU members are covered by EBAs.

Coping with Falling Membership

However, throughout the 1990s, all divisions of the RTBU lost membership, with overall membership falling from 50,000 in 1993, to 35,000 today. However, the RTBU members still represent over 95% of the workers whom the union is entitled to cover.

First there were waves of voluntary redundancies as modern technology, competitive tendering and privatisation programs caught up with what was an under-invested, steam-era industry. Like many other unions, the RTBU has had to negotiate redundancy agreements to protect its members, and it has the best redundancy arrangements in the Australian public sector, with four weeks pay for every year of service.

The traditional railway workshops were rapidly modernised in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, with considerable job losses. The workshops were closed or privatised in Western Australia and New South Wales, and with the sale of Australian National Railways in late 1997, the South Australian railway workshops were sold and savagely cut.

To fight these trends, the RTBU put forward detailed industry policy initiatives, which the Keating Labor government spurned, and the Howard Coalition government never even considered.

The Keating Labor government offered Labour Adjustment Programs to help retrain redundant railway workers, but the Howard Coalition government only offers unemployment benefits and the very limited training available through the Jobs Network. The RTBU supports training and labour market programs too, but these are not enough to reduce unemployment and to create efficient industries.

When Australian National Railways, based in South Australia and Tasmania, was privatised by the Howard Coalition government in late 1997, it was split into three parts - Tasrail (bought by the US rail company Wisconsin Central Transportation); Australian Southern Railroad (bought by US rail company Genesee & Wyoming); and Great Southern Railroad (bought by the British multinational Serco), which runs the prestige interstate passenger trains, the Indian Pacific, The Ghan and The Overland. There was a 50% job loss in ASR.

Wisconsin Central and Serco used the new Workplace Relations Act to force the workers to sign individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) if they wanted to keep their jobs - despite repeated resolutions and petitions by the workers to have the RTBU negotiate an Enterprise Agreement with the new employers.

Under these AWAs, the RTBU could not represent the workers except for some health and safety issues, and the workers were forced to work longer hours on a lower hourly rate of pay, with no say over their rosters. Despite the demoralisation of many of the workers, the RTBU has fought back.

In Tasmania, after a very difficult two years, the RTBU launched a campaign which eventually won a union-negotiated Enterprise Agreement in 2001.

In South Australia in 2000, the RTBU eventually won an order for a Federal Court ballot of members about whether they wanted the union to negotiate an agreement with Serco, or they wanted new individual contracts. Despite not one vote for the Serco option, the Federal Court is yet to rule on the issue. This experience shows how hard it is for the workers to exercise their basic right to collective bargaining under the current Workplace Relations Act, and why the International Labor Organisation has called on the Howard Coalition government to correct the law to no avail so far).

In ASR, the new employer forced the union to accept a significant reduction in pay and conditions in a new Enterprise Agreement, the alternative being no union representation. This greatly demoralised the workers and union membership fell sharply.

However, the RTBU developed its organising capacity and mounted a determined campaign to improve the Enterprise Agreement when it came up for renewal at the end of 2000. the workers - members and non-members alike - were consulted and closely involved in preparing the claim. This time, Genesee & Wyoming moved to have a non-union agreement, but their proposal was rejected by an employee ballot. Two strikes by the RTBU then succeeded in convincing the company to negotiate an improved agreement.

The RTBU continues to work at industry policy and through industrial campaigns to create jobs, to improve wages and working conditions, and to improve workplace and public safety.

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RTBU-PacNat 2009 EBA Campaign

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