Four months later, the government suffered an embarrassing setback in its fight with Claassens and the RTBU when the Fair Work Commission threw out its attempt to have industrial action on the railways suspended for 10 weeks.
Another insider described Claassens as a “shrewd political operator” and “someone you underestimate at your peril” but who always thinks about the best interest of his members. “You have to engage him, and you have to treat him with respect,” the insider said.
Claassens casts himself as a railway man and has repeatedly said he is not aiming for a seat in state parliament despite his political ties. After growing up in Lithgow, he joined the union movement when he began driving trains in 1978, a year after the Granville train crash. For the last two decades, he has lived in Mount Druitt in western Sydney.
The licensed train driver has held many senior positions over the years with the RTBU, as well as more recently holding a seat on Labor’s powerful administrative committee. His position on that committee has opened him to attack from Treasurer Matt Kean and other ministers that the current long-running industrial dispute is part of a concerted political campaign by Labor to win government at the state election in March.
On Wednesday, hours after Premier Dominic Perrottet gave an ultimatum to the rail union, threatening to terminate rail workers’ enterprise agreement and tear up a $1 billion offer to modify the state’s new fleet of intercity trains, Claassens returned fire by accusing the government of pursuing its own “political strategy”.
He also took aim at Labor leader Chris Minns for “playing games in the media”, and called on him to meet union leaders and delegates.
The government now finds itself in an all-out fight with the union despite being able to avoid industrial warfare last decade when it pushed ahead with building driverless metro train lines, which posed a long-term threat to unionised labour.
Complicating the situation, the government has had a revolving door of ministers dealing with Claassens. Perrottet, Kean, Transport Minister David Elliott, Regional Transport Minister Sam Farraway and Roads Minister Natalie Ward have at points weighed into the rail dispute in 2022.
In contrast, Claassens has been the only RTBU state secretary the Coalition has had to deal with since it swept to power in 2011.
Even though Claassens did promise two weeks of “relative peace”, he faces a challenge to maintain public support for the union’s actions if major disruptions to train services resume. Claassens conceded that public sentiment had appeared to turn against the union over the last few days, evident in rail workers copping more abuse from commuters, which he blamed on inflammatory comments from “boofhead politicians” and radio hosts.
The admission came a day after it was revealed that the RTBU was seeking a pay rise 0.5 per cent higher than the government’s cap on public sector wages, implying that the dispute was about more than the union’s concerns about the safety of the new intercity trains.
With both sides digging in, commuters and businesses are collateral damage in a dispute that threatens to escalate.
Peak body Business NSW warned that the rail strikes are entrenching people’s option to work from home, crippling Sydney’s CBD economy. “After two-and-a-half years of COVID … these ongoing disputes could be the final straw for many struggling retail and hospitality businesses,” it said.
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