Longer coal strike could cost $50m

THE Rail, Tram and Bus Union effectively declared war on train company Pacific National on Tuesdayby doubling Friday’s planned strike to 48hours.

If not settled by noon on Friday the strike could stop the movement of about 600,000 tonnes of coal worth about $50million.

Pacific National hauls about three-quarters of the Hunter’s coal but the two other operators could also be hit if stopped trains block access to the Newcastle and Port Kembla coal-loaders.

Pacific National director Dave Irwin said the company was not expecting the extra action, nor had the union explained its actions.

‘‘This is an uncontrolled escalation of the action on behalf of the [union]. We don’t understand the basis on which they have taken it.’’

The union’s Newcastle organiser, Steve Wright, defended the extended action saying the union had always intended to go for 48hours and was only required to give 72hours notice for each day’s action.

Pacific National and the union have been at loggerheads for more than a year over pay and conditions for about 800 employees including more than 400 drivers involved with Hunter and Gunnedah coal trains.

The company has cut its final three-year offer from 4per cent a year to 3per cent, making it well short of the union demand of 7per cent, 5per cent and 5per cent, with another 2per cent a year on top of that for a fuel efficiency bonus carried over from the previous agreement.

Mr Wright said the company reneged on the fuel offer and had not even fitted the monitors needed to measure the improvements.

But Mr Irwin said the bonus was not paid because the fuel bills were never cut, at least partly because rail congestion added to running costs.

Relations between the parties have deteriorated in recent days and Pacific National defended sending private investigators into its Newcastle and Port Kembla workplaces after company notices relating to the dispute were defaced with references to ‘‘scabs’’.

Mr Wright said the company was ‘‘going over the top’’ in reacting to things written on meal-room notice boards.

‘‘And they had the hide to write to the union asking for our support in investigating who wrote on them,’’ Mr Wright said.

But Mr Irwin said the ‘‘scabs’’ messages were ‘‘bullying and intimidation’’ and the company was determined to ‘‘protect those employees who have chosen not to take industrial action’’.

Train drivers contacted the Newcastle Herald on Tuesdayto say that Mr Irwin was refusing to meet their pay claims while his company’s annual report showed his remuneration rising 37per cent to more than $1million last year.

Mr Irwin confirmed the figures, but said the business had grown a lot in the past five years and it was not his job to justify his salary.